An Interview with Nathaniel Ferguson, Candidate for City Council, District 3
In an election season suffuse with discourse concerning the thirteen ballot questions (eight from the Charter Commission, five from citizen petition) it’s almost easy to forget that actual human beings are running for office this November. The at-large race for city council is almost too ridiculous to seriously consider, pitting incumbent Pious Ali, (facing mostly-overblown accusations of conflicts of interest), against Iraqi Republican Aqeel Mohialdeen, (whose primary policy proposal is a total ban on building houses), and fringe candidate Richard Ward, (who has run for several different public offices on an anti-vaccination platform.)
More interesting to me, however, is the bespectacled “Generation Z” candidate for District 3: Nathaniel Ferguson. While it’s not so uncommon for twenty-somethings to get involved in politics around here, Ferguson’s stated platform of pragmatic, rapid responses to Portland’s housing crisis piqued my curiosity. I reached out to Nathaniel to find out more about his plans for District 3, and for Portland as a whole, should he be elected.
How are you feeling about the election season so far, Nathaniel?
I’m feeling pretty good, personally! There is a lot that goes into running a campaign and it can be hard to juggle everything, but it’s great to make connections and hear from voters who also care deeply about Portland and the issues affecting everyone who lives here.
Why did you decide to run for city council?
I decided to run because I think our City Council has a lot of policymaking ability that often goes underutilized. One of the most pressing issues for Portland right now is housing costs, and a good portion of the policies that affect that are set directly by City Council. And we see a lot of people who are frustrated with the lack of policy change introducing referendums, but there are some issues that really aren’t appropriate for a referendum. I mean, our land use code is a really dense and technical document. I think that the only real path to changing that in a positive way is to elect councilors who will vote to amend it. So I’m running to be that person on the council who says “We don’t need to run endless studies. Here are actual policy changes.”
What do you think is the greatest problem facing Portland today?
The most glaring problem we’re up against is the rising cost of housing. Working people and those on a fixed income can’t afford housing in Portland. This is caused by our massive shortage of housing, which causes rents to rise as competition for scarce units intensifies. And this hurts our city in a lot of ways, both by displacing current residents and by preventing people from moving to Portland.
Why do you think that Portland’s government has been unable to adequately respond to this?
I think Portland’s government hasn’t adequately responded to our housing shortage because it is far easier to make minimal changes and tout the handfuls of subsidized units we build instead of fundamentally reforming what the city allows for buildings. I believe our current elected officials when they say they care about affordable housing. I just don’t think they’re acting with the urgency or decisiveness that this issue demands.
Do you feel as though District 3’s residents are facing any distinct challenges from Portland’s residents as a whole?
I think District 3 faces challenges from being off-peninsula while having a fair amount of denser, multifamily neighborhoods, but most of these places are hard to get around without a car. That makes it a struggle for those who can’t drive or don’t have a car, whether that’s because they’re a senior, a child, someone who can’t afford to drive, or someone who chooses not to drive. I think District 3 in particular would be a great place to have better transportation options, like separated bike lanes or more frequent bus service. Even improving sidewalk coverage and redesigning crossings can have a big impact on accessibility.
If you are elected, what will be your first priority?
My first priority would be to change our land use code to allow for the middle-density housing that Portland is sorely missing. ReCode Phase II is scheduled to issue its recommendations soon, and I want to make sure that whatever changes we make there have housing creation as their number one goal. I’d also highly prioritize making changes to the city’s technical manual for how we design streets, to ensure we’re prioritizing pedestrian and cyclist safety whenever we do road work moving forward. Changes to the technical manual come at essentially no cost to the city but have big benefits in terms of walkability and safety. … I’d also like to see us fund the Portland Public Library enough to support evening and weekend hours. I think if I’m elected all of these have a good chance of success. Maybe that’s optimistic, but I really do think that these are common-sense policies that can get the majority of the council on board.
You have stated that you support loosening restrictions on housing development, how will this help renters?
The main idea there is that I want renters to have more power. Currently, if you don’t like the price your landlord is offering you, or there’s maintenance issues, or if they make you jump through ridiculous hoops to apply to a new place, you can’t really do much about it. Landlords know they can find a new tenant quickly, and you know it would be difficult to find another place to live. If we have an abundance of housing, though, the situation reverses. Suddenly renters can pick and choose, and landlords know that a tenant moving out would actually hurt their bottom line. So by allowing more housing to be built, we can create this situation of abundance and leave renters better off.
Is letting private companies build more housing really a solution to the cost of living crisis?
It’s a solution, but not the solution. Frankly, most of the housing in this country gets built by private developers. So the lowest-hanging fruit on housing creation is letting those developers build more. Now, do private developers always build in ways that’s best for everyone? Absolutely not—they’re out to make a profit, after all. But especially in economic environments like this one, with the Fed raising interest rates, we know developers will often build less housing than what we need. So I think there’s an important place for public development as well, especially when it can act counter-cyclically and continue to build even when rates are high. But in the short term I’m much more concerned about whether people have a place to live rather than the financing and ownership structure that gets their unit built.
You’ve also stated that you want to reduce parking requirements, but where will people park?
In the same places they already do! I’m not advocating for a ban on parking. Right now, we have provisions in the land use code that prescribe a certain amount of parking for different buildings. I just don’t think you should be forced to put a parking space on your property if you don’t want to. If an apartment building or business thinks the parking is a valuable use of the space, they’ll put the parking in. If they don’t, they won’t. Simple as that.
Your platform talks a lot about “mixed-use” neighborhoods, what does this look like?
A mixed-use neighborhood is one where people live, work, and play all in the same area. Especially off-peninsula, most of our space is divided into these very rigid zones, where one area is just housing and one area is just commercial space and so on. As a consequence of this, people end up living away from where they work and away from where they get food. So they need to get between these different areas, and usually that means they have to drive. In a mixed-use neighborhood, there could be a corner store down the street they could walk to and get groceries, and the employees of that store might live nearby too. In a mixed-use neighborhood, you can get all of your daily needs met on a walkable, human scale instead of at a car scale.
Why do you support investing in non-car transportation, like buses and cycling?
I think people should have choices. When the only way to get around is in a car, you exclude people who can’t or don’t want to drive. Buses and cycling also are much better environmentally, and have higher throughput than cars, which reduces congestion. But at the end of the day, I think mobility is a public good, and that investments in non-car modes of transportation pay for themselves in terms of happier, healthier, and more productive cities.
Why don’t more people ride bicycles today?
In my experience, a lot of people don’t ride bicycles in Portland because it is dangerous and intimidating. We don’t have a network of bicycle infrastructure that lets people bike safely for transportation. The bike lanes that we do have are almost all directly adjacent to cars, and I understand why people don’t want to be in that situation. I use my bike to get around but I prefer to walk if possible because it feels much safer, especially on busier streets. We can fix this barrier to cycling by prioritizing a safe bicycle network that has some physical separation from cars and isn’t just a few lines of paint on the road. This safer bike infrastructure can be really good for allowing older children the ability to get around independently before they can get a driver’s license. It also benefits drivers, because it helps get bikes out of the road and makes it more clear when and where to expect bike traffic.
How do you feel about the recent use of citizen’s initiatives (a.k.a. referenda) to enact laws directly at the ballot box?
I think that citizen’s initiatives are an important way for voters to say “hey, we need to change this policy”. Especially when those initiatives pass, we need our elected officials to take the voters seriously and create policy that proactively tries to address their underlying concerns, instead of slow-rolling the implementation of the initiatives and waiting for additional referenda to be proposed. We should take the successful passage of citizen’s initiatives as a sign that our city government is failing to create their own policies that reflect what the voters want. I fear that the city government isn’t getting that message, and I think that’s a big challenge when it comes to addressing housing, equity, and justice in Portland.
Do you have any thoughts about the Charter Commission’s proposed reforms?
I have a lot of thoughts! My biggest one is that I wish Question 2 had been split into different pieces. There’s a lot of stuff in there that I think is unambiguously good—the council electing its own chair, clarifying vacancies on school board and city council, and increasing the compensation for elected officials (low pay is a significant barrier to entry). I wish we could have a vote on those provisions separate from the decision to change the role of the mayor or change the size and makeup of the City Council.
Are there any issues which you feel are under-discussed in Portland politics?
I think that public transportation is a very under-discussed issue. I would guess that’s because very few political figures in Portland use it. As an example, Metro Pulse, the “hub” of our hub-and-spoke bus network on Elm Street, doesn’t have any real seating or shelter for riders when they’re waiting to catch the bus. It is very uncomfortable to be standing on a narrow sidewalk with the sun beating down on you waiting for your bus to come. Not to mention that it can get incredibly cold outside in the winter, too. But at a City Council level, there are a lot of ways we can improve our public transportation in Portland, from giving buses priority at intersections to creating more dedicated bus lanes on arterial roads to simply increasing the frequency of service. Robust public transit is a good investment that creates a lot of value for our city in the long run, and I wish it was on the political radar more.
What’s your most creative idea for the City Council to consider?
I think we should redesign the city flag. If you’ve never seen the current one, it’s an ugly seal on a blue bedsheet with some text. We can do a lot better. Obviously this is not not a huge issue, but there are cities with really nice flags (like Chicago and the other Portland), and holding a contest for a flag redesign would be an easy and fun thing to do to celebrate our city and come together as a community. And at the end of it, we’d have a great symbol of our city to proudly fly.
What’s a policy proposal that you think almost everyone in Portland can get behind?
I think almost everyone can get behind some changes to our zoning laws. They’re currently very restrictive and most people don’t think about them very often, if at all. When I explain that the duplex I rent was built in 1920, pre-zoning, and that it would have to be a smaller single-family home if built today, everyone thinks that’s ridiculous. But this is the reality for most of our residential land in Portland. When around a quarter of the housing in the so-called “middle density” zones is prohibited under current law (referring to the analysis in the R-3 and R-5 zones done by ReCode [on pages 38 and 40] here), then that’s a serious sign that something needs to change.
Would you like to say anything about your opponent in the District 3 race, Regina Phillips? Why should District 3’s residents vote for you, instead of her?
I think the main dynamic in this race is that my opponent wishes to essentially continue business-as-usual operations with the City Council, whereas I want to push the City Council to be a force for good policy. If you want the City Council to actually take action on lowering housing costs and to proactively address the issues we’re facing as a city, you should vote for me. I have a plan, concrete policy proposals, and I know what it takes to get those policies enacted. I’m not going to drag my feet with endless meetings and studies and feedback gathering. I think it’s clear that the current direction is not working, and we need to do something new.
Thank you Nathaniel, good luck with the rest of your campaign.
An atypical candidate for his profile, and for Portland. While many eyes this November will be focused on the outcomes for the thirteen ballot questions, be sure to cast a glance over towards District 3, where a dynamic (and potentially controversial) new face may gain a seat on City Council.
Ashley D. Keenan – Ashley is an editor of The Portland Townsman, writer on urbanism, local small business-owner, and Maine native. Her work primarily covers the national housing crisis, building sustainable and livable cities, responsible market economics, and New England culture and history. She lives in Portland with her fiance and can be personally reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.