Mayor Charlie Hales is preparing to push his council colleagues to take a step stronger than anything envisioned when City Council enacted a housing "state of emergency" last year.
As the initial period of that emergency is set to run dry on October 7, Hales wants council to extend it for a whopping three more years. Rumblings about the proposal have been moving through City Hall in recent days, and were confirmed by an agenda item posted to the City Auditor's website today:
But, just as recently occurred with a proposal to hike business taxes and an idea to tax demolitions in town, it appears Hales' new idea doesn't have votes to pass. At least three city commissioners are uncomfortable with a three-year extension, though, there does seem to be an appetite to continue the state of emergency for some period of time.
The emergency designation has been crucial to the city's approach to stemming a rising homelessness problem in the last year. Time and again, it's allowed officials to site temporary homeless shelters on plots of land where zoning would otherwise make that difficult. And it's at the heart of a proposal to create a large, controversial temporary shelter at a city-owned plot in Northwest Portland, Terminal 1. That project's reliance on the emergency could split support for extending it, though other factors will certainly come into play.
At first, it wasn't entirely clear how Hales' office could extend the state of emergency by such a dramatic duration. When council declared the emergency last year, it tweaked city code [PDF] to say: "The initial duration of a housing emergency shall not exceed one year, but may be extended in six-month increments."
The ordinance Hales' office put forward today [PDF] would do away with that limitation entirely.
That's caused some confusion in City Hall about the proposal, even while there's support for continuing the state of emergency. Brendan Finn, chief of staff to Housing Commissioner Dan Saltzman, told the Mercury yesterday Saltzman will vote for an extension, though he did not say whether Saltzman supports a three-year increment.
"There does need to be an extension, which my boss supports, and I believe we'll be needing to be doing that rather soon," Finn said.
It turns out Saltzman's support has limits. The Oregonian reports the commissioner won't back a three-year extension (his office hasn't gotten back to us).
Commissioners, Nick Fish, Steve Novick, and Amanda Fritz feel the same way.
"Commissioner Fish anticipated that we'd be taking up a six-month renewal because that was contemplated in the original council action," says Sonia Schmanski, Fish's chief of staff. "This is something of a surprise. He's unlikely to be comfortable with a three-year extension."
Commissioner Steve Novick, too, is unlikely to go along with the three-year proposal, says Chief of Staff Chris Warner.
"Commissioner Novick is open to an extension, but three years seems too long," Warner says. He says Novick's office hasn't determined what an acceptable extension to the state of emergency might be. "We'll talk to our colleagues when they return next week." (Several council members are on vacation.)
We've also reached out to Mayor-elect Ted Wheeler, since he'd be in office for the vast majority of the three-year extension.
The ordinance Hales' office cooked up neatly dispatches the six-month increments designed to give the state of emergency a cautious air (with its initial one-year time frame, it already shattered the way the city has approached states of emergency in the past): "The provisions of PCC 15.04.040.B limiting the duration of the extension of a housing emergency are waived, and the housing emergency declared by Ordinance 187371 is hereby extended for three years, through October 6, 2019," the ordinance says.
It also lays out some of the new efforts that have been made possible by the looser standards the city has to operated under during an emergency. Those include "siting of mobile day storage facilities that include portable toilets and sharps containers" and piloting new shelters.
And it says a key reason for the three-year extension is the real-estate market.
"Given the anticipated continued pressure on the rental housing market, and associated challenges for low-income households to find and maintain housing, there remains an urgent need to continue shelter expansion and to transition temporary shelter capacity to permanent shelter capacity over the next three years," the ordinance says.
Hales' office offered to speak about the proposal with the Mercury early in the afternoon, but hasn't yet followed through.
The city's created numerous short-term shelter spaces, including one at an old Army Reserve building and in a vacant building downtown. Both of those have since been shuttered, but there's a new 200-bed facility at the old Multnomah County Sheriff's Office headquarters in East Portland.
Notably, Marc Jolin, head of Multnomah County's new Joint Office of Homeless Services (which is also funded by the city), will be presenting the push for an extension. That implies his immediate boss, County Chair Deborah Kafoury, might be supportive. Neither Kafoury nor a county spokesperson have responded to our inquiries.
As we've reported, the city and county have looked at dozens of properties as potential shelter sites in the last year, without much luck.
UPDATE, 2 pm:
Wheeler, rather than answering the Mercury individually, has tweeted his reaction to Hales' proposal:
1/2 I don’t object to an extension of the emergency declaration, but more important than the declaration is its implementation.
— Ted Wheeler (@tedwheeler) August 25, 2016
2/2 I look forward to developing a shared understanding (community-wide) of what, exactly, this declaration means in terms of real action.
— Ted Wheeler (@tedwheeler) August 25, 2016
Wheeler got no forewarning about the proposal. Meanwhile, Hales' office is describing the three-year plan as a "ceiling," for an extension, subject to negotiation.
"There have been a lot of lessons learned in the last year about how this works and the time needed to do these kinds of things," says Chad Stover, the staffer who's been running point on the issue for Hales. "The three year time frame was a ceiling. You can do this a bunch of different ways."
Stover says he's been floating this idea with commissioners' offices for weeks, and never got solid indications that there was opposition. "I didn't hear anything back," he says. "I haven't heard anyone say they're 'wary.'"
And Stover says Kafoury is on board. "I think we have good support there," he says.
He's sort of wrong. Kafoury spokesperson Dave Austin tells the Mercury that Kafoury's not sold.
"She has not spoken to the mayor about a three-year extension," Austin says. "She believes we are still in a state of emergency and there should be some kind of extension. But with a mayor going out, a new mayor going in, and questions from city council, it’s not time to make a broad-based decision."
Interestingly, Hales won't be in City Hall when council takes up the ordinance Wednesday afternoon, Stover says. He'll be participating over the phone.