Mike Force

IN LATE JULY, hundreds of homeless Portlanders moved into the beleaguered former headquarters of the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, in what instantly became the city’s largest homeless shelter.

There was outcry, as always. Neighbors lashed out at officials, predicting child rapes and other heinous acts. Two Multnomah County commissioners, Loretta Smith and Diane McKeel, complained the shelter was unsafe for habitation.

But even though its existence ran afoul of Portland’s zoning laws, what no one could claim was that the new “Hansen Building” shelter was illegal.

At 200 beds, the shelter holds double the number of beds allowed under Portland’s restrictive code, which permits no more than 100 before a stringent review process kicks in (and far fewer than that in most areas).

In the case of the Hansen Building, that hurdle was easy to jump. Since declaring a housing “state of emergency” nearly 11 months ago, Portland officials have been free to bend zoning rules.

Now some of those rules might be permanently relaxed. Under a list of changes slated to come before council later this year, shelters on the scale of Hansen would be permitted long after the emergency status ends.

The Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS), at the behest of city council, is pitching a series of zoning tweaks designed to make it easier to create shelters in Portland. Many of the changes—laid out in a technical 66-page draft document—are small edits to the city’s zoning code. But the proposal also would double the number of shelter beds allowed “by right” in more than a dozen zoning categories, meaning expensive, time-consuming land-use reviews won’t always be required in order to establish larger shelters.

And crucially, the changes would toss decades-old restrictions dictating that shelters must be 1,300 feet away from one another. The new provisions would shrink that separation requirement to 600 feet, about two or three blocks, according to Phil Nameny, a planner at BPS.

“The code as it now exists is pretty defensive,” says Tony Bernal, director of funding and public policy at Transition Projects, which operates five shelters in Portland. “It makes it extraordinarily hard to site shelters.”

Other changes in the draft would allow religious institutions to host up to four homeless households for roughly six months at a time, and ease the stringent “conditional use” reviews shelters have to undergo when they don’t fit in a given zone.

The proposals have special resonance as Portland grapples with a worsening homelessness crisis, and as city officials prepare to launch what’s almost certainly the largest campsite sweep in Portland history when they clear out the Springwater Corridor beginning Thursday, September 1.

And the possible zoning changes are timelier than they might have been. Last week, Mayor Charlie Hales surprised many when he revealed he wants to extend Portland’s state of emergency status by three years, a far longer period than envisioned when council declared it last October.

The rest of city council immediately shot the idea down, and it now appears that the emergency will be extended for a more modest period of time. When the designation does eventually end, advocates say the city should have requirements in place that ease the task of creating homeless shelters.

“We haven’t tried to open shelter [in the past] as quickly as we’re currently trying to open it,” says Marc Jolin, head of the county’s Joint Office of Homeless Services. “We need to scale up quickly.”

After a little more than a year under the state of emergency’s relaxed rules, officials say they’ll have expanded shelter capacity in the city by 475 beds by New Year’s Day. That doesn’t account for two short-term shelter spaces created under the emergency that have since been closed.

“It can be done,” Jolin says. “The zoning code changes allow us to build on that success.”

It’s unclear what effect those code changes could have on existing homeless shelters in town. At least eight could see their maximum number of beds rise to 200, according to a Mercury analysis, but many of those would likely be limited by floor space. Zoning rules demand at least 35 square feet per bed, meaning a 200-bed facility would have to be a minimum of 7,000 square feet.

For instance, Bernal says Transition Projects’ 90-bed Doreen’s Place shelter, located at Bud Clark Commons, likely wouldn’t expand under new rules.

“I think 90 is what the space was designed for,” he says. “My guess is that we would stick with that.”

Also unclear is how much new shelter the zoning changes might spur. Even under a state of emergency, the city’s hot real estate market has made finding new shelter space difficult.

But there’s a big upside to the proposed code changes. Both Bernal and Jolin point out that allowing more people at homeless shelters can be cost effective when resources are scarce, as long as it’s done humanely.

“There’s essentially no cost difference for us in operating a shelter of 80 people versus 100,” Bernal says. “Bump that shelter up to 120 or 130 people, it’s still not a lot.”

The new rules BPS is proposing are scheduled to go before the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission on September 13. A recommendation is expected to go before Portland City Council in November.