Portland Mayor Charlie Hales on Wednesday morning announced intentions to declare a housing emergency in Portland. He'll ask city council to approve in two weeks.
The move would allow the city to waive zoning codes and convert city-owned buildings into shelters more nimbly, Hales' office says. The city also plans to work with Multnomah County to petition Gov. Kate Brown to declare a state of emergency for Portland. That would mean Portland can waive portions of state building codes to allow for expedited conversion of buildings to shelters. It could also speed the construction of a new permanent housing site for people who've been served by the Unity Center, the psychiatric emergency center planned in Portland.
The move is abrupt and unexpected. Hales and his chief of staff, Josh Alpert, were hurriedly visiting city commissioners' offices directly before this morning's City Council meeting, apprising Portland's other electeds of the plans. Even Housing Commissioner Dan Saltzman's office only got word of the declaration yesterday, Saltzman's chief of staff says.
“When I came into office, the single-night count of homeless told us we had 1,800 Portlanders sleeping unsheltered. That same count, two years later, barely budged. And yet we had spent millions of dollars and countless staff time,” Hales said in a news release. “We’ve tried slow-and-steady. We’ve tried by-the-book. It’s time to add the tools we currently lack.”
Though the immediate goals of the declaration Hales is proposing revolve around moving all homeless women off the streets by year's end, it's still unclear where the tendrils go. Alpert told reporters after the mayor's announcement that the state of emergency may extend to affordable housing and renter protections. And he said the mayor's office agrees with the contention of the Community Alliance of Tenants that the city's experiencing a "man-made" emergency—a designation which could allow Hales and the council to enact rent control measures otherwise prohibited under state law.
That's "based on housing vacancy rates that have produced a system of human suffering," Alpert says.
UPDATE, 1:45 pm: At a press conference with reporters this afternoon, Hales said rent control's probably off the table. The mayor says skirting the state's ban is "really based on something like a natural disaster. This is a market problem, not a natural disaster." It seemed City Attorney Tracy Reeve, standing nearby, was in agreement.
The actual language of the state law makes clear man-made disasters apply. But the law says the emergency in question has to "eliminate a significant portion of the rental housing supply," which would almost certainly be legal fodder for landlords and developers to fight rent control—Portland hasn't eliminated supply so much as completely failed to keep new housing in step with new residents.
The mayor's office is offering few details right now on a policy it acknowledges has only been in the work for "five or six days." The city also isn't releasing a list of public properties that might be used as shelters, though Alpert listed temporary shelters in city SmartPark garages or housing in the empty Wapato jail as possibilities that have been raised in the past, but deemed unworkable.
"I think we can do better than SmartParks," Alpert said. "We're not gonna talk about specifics today."
Alpert also couldn't point out a time under Hales' tenure that the city's been stymied in efforts to site a permanent homeless shelter because of zoning codes. But he said Portland's zoning code has evolved to the point that East Portland's Gateway neighborhood is becoming one of the only places to create shelters.
"Old Town would move to Gateway and we would just replicate what happened in Old Town over time," Alpert said. "That’s just because of the way the zoning code has been built up over time."
In his meeting with reporters, Hales painted the forthcoming declaration as a way to clear the tables for many more issues than the relatively narrow plan to find new shelter space. Unsheltered homeless women, the population Hales' proposal is mostly targeting, amount to about 560 of the nearly 2,000 people estimated to sleep outside in Multnomah County.
"Some of those homeless are refugees in an economy that's leaving them behind," Hales said. But the mayor isn't bursting with new proposals for addressing the many other Portlanders affected by that economy, instead touting the benefits of zeroing in on a small population. Hales also flashed a map, provided by Saltzman's office, he said showed how difficult it is to site a new shelter. Here it is (red means a shelter's not possible, Hales says, and orange areas mean it's very difficult).
In justifying throwing out zoning rules, the mayor painted a picture of needless bureaucratic red tape he said stymies the development of shelters. "A conditional use for a new shelter costs $30,000 and takes about 6 months to get through the bureaucracy," he said. "I don't want it to take 6 months." Hales is hoping to have a new women's shelter up and running by the end of the year.
"Why do this now? Winter's coming," Hales said.
One hiccup regarding states of emergency: Under city law, they're designed to be short term—two weeks in duration. If city council agrees to declare and emergency, City Attorney Reeve says the body may have to extend the declaration repeatedly, every two weeks.
One commissioner leaping eagerly on Hales' proposal: Nick Fish, who formerly oversaw the Portland Housing Bureau, and is reliably vocal about finding more money for affordable housing in the city. Fish says he walked into his office this morning—after reading news last night that Los Angeles had declared a housing emergency—ready to propose his own slate of actions. He wouldn't comment on the specifics of Hales' proposal, but says he's supportive of the overall tone.
"My interpretation is that council is now going to say this is the most important issue confronting the city," Fish said. If that's the case, Fish says, the city should be ready to spend millions more every year to fund new housing development, and be ready to ask voters for a new source of revenue—a bond measure for instance—next November.
Other suggestions you can expect to hear from Fish, he says:
•That Portland increase the amount of urban renewal money it dedicates to housing, from 30 percent to 50 percent. That's a recommendation that initially came from the city's Housing Advisory Committee, but which has met pushback.
•Putting $7.5 million a year toward fighting homelessness, as part of a plan being drawn up by A Home For Everyone, a coalition of local groups working to combat the problem. The county would contribute an additional $7.5 million each year.
•Dedicating any tax money collected from short-term rental services like Airbnb toward affordable housing.
This whole announcement comes at a time furor over rising homelessness, rising rents, and displacement seems to have reached historic proportions in Portland. City officials are facing an increasing drum beat for policies that can stem the tide of those worsening issues (the Mercury asked housing officials about declaring a state of emergency back in late July), and Hales is facing a election challenger, State Treasurer Ted Wheeler, who's made homelessness and development key attack points.
Update, 3:30 pm: True to form, Wheeler's people wasted no time deriding Hales for the proposal. "Ted Wheeler has said we have a full-blown crisis on the streets of our city and we are glad that after three years in office Charlie Hales is finally acknowledging that fact," Wheeler campaign consultant Jake Weigler said in a statement to reporters. "We need a mayor that will address the major problems facing the city every year - not just during an election year."
It also comes as Hales office is pushing to move respected homeless encampment Right 2 Dream Too from its Old Town home to a spot near the east end of the Tilikum Crossing bridge. Interestingly, foes of that effort have said Hales is ignoring city zoning laws in pushing that move. Now Hales wants to formally ignore those zoning codes. Alpert says the mayor's announcement today has nothing to do with R2DToo.
Hales plans to convene a meeting of all mayors from other West Coast cities this fall to address issues of affordable housing and homelessness, according to the news release.
It's been an exciting week for cities up and down the West Coast, all of which are experiencing homelessness and displacement at alarming rates.
On Monday, Seattle City Council passed a resolution calling for the state legislature to lift its ban on rent control and passed two bills increasing tenant protections.
Tuesday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors beefed up tenant rights by prohibiting evictions for minor offenses, allowing tenants to get a roomie, and extending rent control on certain vacated units.
And Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti yesterday announced the city is prepared to spend at least $100 million in the next year to fight rampant homelessness.