It's been a good week to be homeless in Portland—compared to the usual Boschian nightmare. Not only did Mayor Sam Adams and City Commissioner Nick Fish permanently annihilate the unconstitutional sit-lie law last Friday, September 11, but two days earlier the mayor announced an out-of-court settlement that paves the way for a $46.6 million Resource Access Center (RAC) for the homeless to be built in Old Town. Even better? It's gonna be "fast tracked." Woot!
What was the holdup? An advocacy group of Pearl District developers and urban renewal consultants calling themselves the Friends of Urban Renewal (FOUR) lodged a challenge with the state's Land Use Board of Appeals last year, after city council tried to expand the River District Urban Renewal Area—which happens to include the Pearl District—to include Old Town. FOUR questioned the legality of using tax revenues from the booming Pearl District to build affordable housing projects like the RAC.
Never mind that Portland is currently top five in the nation in unemployment, hunger, and homelessness, according to Fish. These richie rich "friendly" developer types planned to draw out their appeal against the RAC until mid-2010, while more than 1,600 people a night continue to sleep outside with no shelter beds available. At a city hall "memorial for affordable housing" on Monday, September 14, advocacy group Soapbox Under the Bridge laid down graves for the 1,612 rooms of affordable housing lost in Portland's downtown core since 1994.
"In the world through the eyes of Jesus, the business community has as much responsibility to look after the poor as churches or synagogues or mosques," said Reverend Chuck Cooper, from the United Methodist Church in Gresham, delivering a mock eulogy. "If you do not care for the poor, your own soul cannot be saved. And that is not just the individual soul, but the soul of a city, the soul of a state."
I hope the greedy developers were listening to that speech. Meanwhile, Fish was anxious to credit Mayor Adams and the Portland Development Commission for brokering the legal settlement, which means the city will take "a modest haircut" on money available for development in the expanded River District from $549.5 million to $489.5 million. But credit should really go to him, I think, for much of the negotiation behind the scenes. It's a major breakthrough, tactfully achieved without courtroom drama.