County outreach workers check in with unhoused Portlanders in December 2021.
County outreach workers check in with unhoused Portlanders in December 2021. Motoya Nakamura / Multnomah County

Portland City Council has voted to extend the citywide housing state of emergency for three more years, despite attempts to disengage with this emergency order in 2021.

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The city's housing state of emergency, first declared in 2015 by then-mayor Charlie Hales, has allowed the city to ease zoning regulations for homeless shelters, expedite the permitting process for shelters, and establish day storage facilities where unhoused people can safely store their belongings. In March 2021, Portland City Council passed a policy that would make permanent many of the allowances made possible by the emergency declaration—and then some.

Called the Shelter to Housing Continuum, this policy updated city code language to allow for temporary shelters to exist in all city zones for up to 180 days and allows for public agencies or nonprofits to build permanent indoor and outdoor shelters on lots previously off-limits to these facilities without a special permit. It also expands the capacity of large indoor shelters, codifies the permitting process for those interested in building tiny home villages and other non-traditional shelters, and makes it legal for people to reside in RVs that are parked on residential properties.

“This ordinance gives us the foundation we need to continue our work to address homelessness without the need to be perpetually relying on emergency powers,” said Mayor Ted Wheeler, after casting his vote in support of the policy in April.

On Wednesday, however, council unanimously agreed to rely on those powers for at least three more years.

"It has become clear that there are still a few challenges to work out with the code," said City Commissioner Dan Ryan at the Wednesday morning council meeting.

Ryan did not detail these challenges, but said that the city's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability and a Shelter to Housing Continuum work group are currently working on ironing them out. If the emergency declaration expired without these issues resolved, it would mean several shelter projects would fall out of compliance with the city's standard zoning codes, Ryan added.

The declaration comes as debate over Portland's homelessness crisis reaches a boiling point. Frustration with the city's visible homeless population has inspired outside political groups and City Hall insiders to lobby for mass shelters, while homeless rights advocates have rallied for more affordable housing options. This week, a coalition of property owners on Portland's Central Eastside filed a lawsuit against Multnomah County for planning to open a women's homeless shelter next to their properties, stating that their buildings' closeness to unhoused people will deter future business.

The city and county expects to have at least 1,600 shelter beds available for homeless Portlanders in the next year, which is three times the amount offered in 2015, the year the housing emergency was first announced.

Ryan said the decision to extend the housing emergency declaration for three additional years—until March 22, 2025—is in alignment with the city's funding timeline through the US American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). If the city remains under the emergency for the duration of this extension, it will mean a housing emergency will have existed in Portland for just under a decade. Commissioner Mingus Mapps expressed his disappointment with this delay before voting Wednesday.

"I believe that this is the sixth time this housing emergency has been extended," said Mapps. "To me, that points to a need for deeper structural change in organizing our attempts to address houselessness. I had hoped we had addressed those concerns in our Shelter to Housing Continuum ordinance."

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