PORTLAND, AT LEAST on paper, still has a city commissioner in charge of housing.
Way back in June, Mayor Charlie Hales handed the city's housing bureau—and its programs on homelessness and preservation and housing construction—to an interesting choice: Commissioner Dan Saltzman.
But in the midst of a major new push on homelessness—including informational meetings, clearing a city hall protest to make way for food carts, and, especially, a newly muscular crackdown on camping—some observers say it's been rather easy to think otherwise.
Because here's the thing about each of those efforts: They've all been productions of the mayor's office. Not Saltzman's.
Twice when Hales stood with cops in front of TV cameras to defend his anti-camping push, Saltzman and his housing bureau were nowhere to be found. And as Hales has met with providers and cops and business interests to discuss long-term approaches to homelessness and panhandling, neither Saltzman's staff nor the housing bureau have been involved.
Now, after years of counting on a long line of vocal housing commissioners to champion their work in city hall, from Gretchen Kafoury to Erik Sten to Nick Fish, advocates and political observers contacted by the Mercury have begun weighing some distressing questions: Where's Saltzman? Will he manage to take his place in that pantheon? And if not, who can they count on to lead?
"They're trying to get up to speed on very complex issues," says Israel Bayer of Street Roots—someone Hales' office has turned to for advice. "But it's unclear who is leading the charge over there," he adds. "Is it Charlie? Is it Dan? Is it a collective group of commissioners?"
It's not just advocates who've noticed. Twice during Hales' most recent press "scrum," where the mayor defended a series of camp sweeps in and around downtown that saw only a few arrests, reporters from the Mercury and the Oregonian pressed Hales on why Saltzman, the city's housing commissioner, wasn't in attendance. Hales demurred by saying Saltzman didn't need to attend because he was talking about public safety, not homelessness. (Never mind that camping violations, unlike aggressive panhandling, by definition affect people who are homeless.)
But the symbolism of Hales going it alone has also become a concern for other elected officials.
Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury, who's leading efforts to better share city and county spending on safety net programs, says it's been "confusing" to figure out whether it's Hales, or Saltzman and the housing bureau, she needs to work with most.
"I desperately wish [Hales] would have consulted with his partners, the people who've been working in this field a long time before doing these sweeps," says Kafoury. "I also wish he had gone in with both a carrot and a stick as opposed to just a stick."
Fish, who had not weighed in on his old turf while Hales took the lead and Saltzman faded back, broke his silence in a devastating way and questioned the mayor's compassion.
"Over the past few weeks, I've heard from many concerned people in our community and they have asked very profound questions," Fish says. "Such as are we still committed to solving homelessness? Or just to displacing it? Who is leading our efforts? And why is the language they are hearing so harsh? The language of epidemics and lawlessness. And why is there so little compassion?"
It's a significant move from Fish, who must work closely with Hales as part of his new portfolio overseeing water and environmental services.
So where has Saltzman been? The commissioner, in a long interview in his office on Friday, August 9, tried to bat back the notion he's taking a backseat in the city's housing conversation, adding that he supported the mayor's efforts.
"Nobody's hiding the ball from us," he says. "I don't feel threatened in my territory as housing commissioner."
Saltzman says he's just been quiet while trying to learn the ins and outs of a bureau unlike any other he's run before.
The housing bureau, which doles out millions in local and federal funding every year, relies on close relationships with nonprofit partners who provide, among other things, outreach work, shelter space, affordable housing, and short-term rent assistance. (It's so complicated that Saltzman didn't realize that the city's so-called "10-year plan" to end homelessness wasn't named by wishful local officials; it was a federal requirement.)
His office has nonetheless been working on a handful of things, Saltzman says. The first is a thorough review of which nonprofits make the best use of the city's money. The second is a shift in the city's priorities, away from single adult males and toward families and women; Saltzman already oversees the Portland Children's Levy, a special city tax that helps disadvantaged children. The third is finding more shelter space. He's hoping to tap at least $250,000 out of extra federal grant money to do that this fall.
"It could be more than that," he says. "It depends on the generosity of my colleagues."
The housing bureau, in a statement from spokeswoman Jaymee Cuti, confirms Saltzman's staffers have been in close, regular contact with the bureau.
"The housing bureau staff checks in weekly with Commissioner Saltzman's office. Our staffs talk daily," Cuti wrote in a statement. "He has asked us for briefings on our programs and policies, particularly about options for homeless women and street count data."
But Saltzman's calendars since taking over the bureau in June tell a story of their own. Saltzman has had several housing-related meetings, but just five one-on-one sit-downs with Housing Director Traci Manning. And none so far this month—even as Hales was making news.
By comparison, he's had 10 meetings with Fire Chief Erin Janssens, who leads the other major bureau Saltzman oversees—a bureau Saltzman has long expressed an interest in running.
"You're still early in the transition," says Dennis Morrow of Janus Youth Programs. "He walked into [housing] at a fairly difficult time. If he locks into an issue, he will represent it. It may not be the same way Fish used to do. He is still figuring out the depth and detail on this stuff."
Hales' office, meanwhile, also bristles at the idea it's stepping on Saltzman's toes. Spokesman Dana Haynes says Hales and Saltzman met Monday, August 12, to talk about Hales' informal meetings on homelessness, and says their staffs meet regularly. Haynes says Hales hasn't invited Saltzman or the bureau to participate because he already knows where to find them and because he wants an "outside" perspective.
"You say 'traditionally' the housing commissioner has been a very public advocate for homelessness issues," Haynes told the Mercury. "Does that mean the mayor shouldn't be as well? Is this an issue so easily understood that it doesn't require two elected officials focusing on it?"
That may be the reality moving forward. Hales declared homelessness and sidewalk enforcement among his top priorities during his State of the City speech this spring, to the delight and enthusiasm of the Portland Business Alliance. Doreen Binder, who runs Transition Projects, also has previously told the Mercury she finds it refreshing to see a mayor so willing to wade into so sticky an issue.
Commissioners Steve Novick and Amanda Fritz declined to comment on the leadership dynamic between Saltzman and Hales. But advocates like Street Roots' Bayer look at news coverage of police sweeps and food carts, and remain unconvinced that what's come out so far is pointing toward a meaningful long-term solution.
"There needs to be a clear strategy laid out about how we're going to access adequate resources to address homelessness downtown and throughout the city," says Bayer, noting Street Roots remains a willing partner in any future discussions. "There needs to be leadership that shows we're not dealing with this only from a law enforcement perspective, that we're dealing with this from the context of public health, housing resources, how we work together as a community."
Bayer says he hopes Hales makes better use of advocates like Kafoury and Fish.
"When working on these issues, you need the smartest people around the table to be able to develop a long-term strategic plan," he says. "It can't become about personalities and power and rhetoric."
Kafoury is already raising questions about the signals Saltzman's been sending. The two have spoken just twice about how to devise a regional governing body to take charge of housing, only once in person. If Saltzman's prizing families but also targeting shelter capacity, she says, that might not be the right fix.
It would be better to spend money on short-term apartments for families, she says, instead of "making them jump through hoops and then getting them a place to live." That's a message she'd give in person if she were asked.
"There's a much greater likelihood of success if the jurisdictions are working together," Kafoury says, "than if each jurisdiction is on its own."
Saltzman may yet be more visible in the coming months and promises he's willing to tread on sacred ground when it comes to moving around nonprofit money.
His efforts are also tied up in a potential reelection effort next year. Last time, he waited until late in 2009 to declare. This year, he says, he'll make a decision, for a fifth term, much earlier.
And one change already is certain. Unlike Fish, who last year joined Fritz and Novick in supporting a grass-roots budget campaign that persuaded Hales not to cut housing and social services programs, Saltzman says such boosterism would be unbecoming.
"I'm not convinced all of that's truly the 'safety net,'" Saltzman says. "I won't hang a placard around my neck."