COMMISSIONER NICK FISH, like anyone who's estranged from something or someone they love, still keeps a fond eye on the Portland Housing Bureau, taken from him last year during Mayor Charlie Hales' first big shakeup of Portland City Hall.
He roots for the bureau during budget season. And he's taken other stands for the bureau, privately and publicly—like when he joined a twice-stymied call to fatten the city's housing investment fund by tapping new revenue from short-term rentals.
But mostly—lest anyone complain too loudly that he's consumed with looking after his legacy—Fish has kept diplomatically quiet about all the different ways in which the bureau's new boss, Commissioner Dan Saltzman, has been running things.
Fish broke his silence last year to rip both Saltzman and Hales over camp sweeps and harsh rhetoric on homelessness. "Who is leading our efforts?" he told us ["The Empty Throne," News, Aug 14, 2013]. "Why is there so little compassion?"
And now he's doing it again. Fish is apoplectic over the housing bureau's plans, detailed in an October 28 memo, to scale back the number of housing units it hopes to set aside for needy Portlanders in the city's fancy South Waterfront district.
According to that memo, obtained by the Mercury before it was reported by the Oregonian this week, the bureau wants to call things good after providing just 72 housing units in the district for people making no more than 30 percent of the region's median family income. That's barely any more than the 42 it's already built—and far short of the 166 it pledged to build in 2003. (And even that was a compromise target, officials and observers say.)
It's an understandable urge. Units for the neediest Portlanders often are paired with social services—making them too expensive for builders without deep public subsidies.
The housing bureau is looking at how much it can spend in South Waterfront—about $31 million under proposed changes to the city's urban renewal policies—and there's a reasonable argument that the money would go further if spent on units for people making 30 percent to 60 percent of median income.
But Fish says that kind of shift amounts to a retreat. And he's going to fight the recommendation when it heads before city council next month with the rest of the city's proposed urban renewal revisions.
Portland can still strive to build more housing for extremely low-income Portlanders, Fish says—so long as bureaucrats and elected officials, like Saltzman, are willing to aggressively woo nonprofits and agencies like Home Forward to stitch together complex subsidy deals. According to Fish, the bureau did similar work in financing Gray's Landing, a building for veterans in South Waterfront.
"We are in the middle of a housing crisis and we need to continue to think big," Fish told me. "This is not the time to lower the bar; this is the time to be bold. We should be focusing on strengthening partnerships and lowering costs, not rewriting our housing goals."
Fish's tack is interesting. He's attempting to force a conversation on housing in South Waterfront right when the city's working to grow nearby Portland State University and refashion one of the last major pieces of industrial land in the district, the old Zidell shipyards.
Also, by focusing on leadership, he's drawing a distinction between this issue and the housing bureau's failure, when he was its overseer, to keep up with affordable housing commitments in the Pearl.
Saltzman's chief of staff, meanwhile, didn't respond to a message seeking comment on Tuesday, November 11.
It's possible his office might point me to another part of the memo—in which the housing bureau contemplates using other lures, besides direct subsidies, to promote affordable housing. But there are no targets attached to that just yet—city officials are still looking to pay a consultant to help them figure out what those incentives might look like.
Fish isn't even the only person complaining. Israel Bayer, director of Street Roots, has questioned the city's leadership in light of the memo and other concerns. So has the League of Women Voters. It's possible some of Fish's colleagues, like Amanda Fritz and Steve Novick, might join him, too.