Ryan Alexander-Tanner

MAYOR CHARLIE HALES was office-hopping.

With his chief of staff and the city attorney in tow, Hales dashed out of a meeting with Commissioner Steve Novick just minutes before the September 23 city council hearing. Then he ducked into Commissioner Nick Fish's office for a brief, whispery huddle.

Hales had a surprise for his colleagues—one you'd think would merit more than a quick heads up before it was unveiled to the wide world: The mayor was about to announce the city is formally in crisis.

"I'm going to bring forward to the city council a proposal to declare a housing emergency for Portland," Hales told the public, minutes after telling Fish. "That will produce authority for the city to do things better and faster than we do now."

It was an abrupt move, with questions swirling about how it would even work—which meant it was perfectly illustrative of Portland's frenzied efforts to get something (anything) done to quiet the full-throated alarm over housing.

Blink these days, and you'll miss the newest proposal for fixing Portland's woes. On September 15, the Community Alliance of Tenants held a press conference declaring a "state of emergency" in Portland housing, urging city hall to enact bold renter protections.

The next day, Housing Commissioner Dan Saltzman announced his own weaker series of renter protections—what he claimed are the strongest options we have under current law. Not until a day or two after that, according to their own timeline, did Hales' staff get to work on an emergency announcement.

If city council agrees to declare that emergency—the mayor's office scheduled an October 7 vote—it will be an almost unprecedented move. The day before Hales' announcement, Los Angeles became the first city in the US to declare an emergency around homelessness.

But the LA proposal came with a hard spending commitment of $100 million in the next year. Hales' proposal has no spending goal. It's actually very narrow in scope: The mayor says a formal state of emergency will allow the city to suspend its zoning code, and more easily build new shelters for women and people with mental illness.

Is it a publicity stunt? With Hales facing stout competition from State Treasurer Ted Wheeler in next year's mayoral race, plenty of people have suggested as much. Hales jokes that putting more homeless shelters in people's backyards isn't the best way to win fans.

Stunt or no, though, the mayor has left the door open for something bigger than a couple of new shelters.

Just hours after learning of Hales' intention, Commissioner Fish was inviting reporters to hear a seven-point housing plan he was clearly formulating on the fly. It's made up of predictable elements, like leveraging some of the money that went to roads in this year's budget for housing, and making the Portland Development Commission spend more on cheap units.

Those ideas have been around a while, but they've got more legs in light of Hales' "emergency" talk.

"My interpretation," Fish says, "is that council is now going to say this is the most important issue confronting the city."

Not many Portlanders would disagree.