The accusations flew on Wednesday, September 6, as an array of city and county officials sat before residents and business owners in Old Town Chinatown, making the case for a new homeless shelter in a neighborhood that’s long been the city’s social services center.
“This is criminal!” a man shouted from the crowd at one point during the informational meeting.
“Are we friendliest to tourists or are we friendliest to the homeless?” asked another. “That’s a big difference.”
In other words, the meeting resembled those that have occurred in every corner of the city where a shelter is contemplated—with a key difference. Again and again, the incensed Old Town business owners brought up a “no net gain” agreement sketched out in the late ’80s that they said ensured social services would not meaningfully increase in the neighborhood.
“Is no net gain a deal or not?” someone shouted. “Just answer the damn question!” another urged.
Today there are four year-round homeless shelters in Old Town, comprising some 328 beds (and more in the winter). The county’s Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS)—always diligent in scrambling to find new options—is proposing one more: a shelter at the corner of Northwest 3rd and Glisan that could offer as many as 200 beds.
That’s potentially a 61 percent increase in shelter beds in the neighborhood—something many in Old Town believe flouts the old agreement. Last week, those claims were brushed aside.
“It’s not a binding agreement,” said Christian Gaston, policy and research director for County Chair Deborah Kafoury.
Berk Nelson, who handles homelessness issues for Mayor Ted Wheeler, agreed. “We’re not in 1980 anymore,” he said. “We’re talking about development to address the needs that are in Old Town Chinatown.”
Those answers were misleading at best.
While you’d be hard-pressed to argue Portland couldn’t use more shelter space, the “no net gain” agreement reached 30 years ago isn’t the dusty relic officials suggested. It has tendrils that reach into the present day.
Repeatedly over the years, officials have sketched growth plans with an eye toward limiting expansion of services in Old Town. Just last week, Portland City Council began discussing the massive Central City 2035 plan, which includes language that says Portland should “limit the significant expansion of these services and... not locate additional major social services in the district.” The council approved similar language in 2015.
But while Old Town stakeholders the Mercury spoke with understand pieces of that history, neither Wheeler nor Kafoury’s staff appears to have grasped the extent of the city’s effort to honor the old deal prior to last week’s meeting.
“They were there to educate us about homelessness and the need for this shelter,” says Gloria Lee, executive director of the Giving Tree, an Old Town nonprofit. “Clearly they had not done their homework.”
Now that’s changing. Wheeler spokesperson Michael Cox says his office is currently digging into the city’s commitments in Old Town, including the policy not to “locate additional major social services” currently before council.
“That particular wording is something that we’re looking at right now,” Cox tells the Mercury. “We’re doing the same thing you are, which is to look through the history of those agreements.”
The so-called “no net gain” policy began in 1987, as a groundbreaking truce between businesses and social service providers in what was at the time called North Downtown.
The tensions that existed then were very much the ones that persist today—businesspeople were pushing for revitalization, while social services feared development would push out needy Portlanders.
The result was the “Clark-Shiels agreement,” a deal sketched out between Donald Clark, then the executive director of Central City Concern, and Roger Shiels, who represented business interests and property owners in the neighborhood.
The six-page pact [PDF] set out a conciliatory tone, in which developers would commit to retaining 252 shelter beds within the neighborhood, along with the 1,030 single-room occupancy (SRO) units at the time. In return, social service providers couldn’t expand operations.
“This program will be a part of a regional program whereby all districts and neighborhoods within the Central City and the city in general will accomodate [sic] housing and social services for resident low- and zero-income persons,” the agreement read.
It might have been little more than a handshake agreement had city council not gotten involved.
In May 1987, the council formally commended the agreement via a resolution. And when the body approved a growth plan for the central city the following year, it explicitly limited the number of shelter beds and SRO units within the district, as set forth in the agreement—including a limit of 252 shelter beds.
In 1993, the city switched things up. As part of a set of zoning amendments aimed at ensuring Portland wasn’t running afoul of the federal Fair Housing Act, officials adopted a policy that sought to “maximize housing choice” while discouraging “the concentration of low- or no-income households.” Under the policy [see page 55 of this document], the Old Town Chinatown neighborhood was one of 18 districts citywide where new low-income housing and shelter projects were ineligible to be funded with city cash.
In 1999, the “no net gain” agreement was once again cited in a development plan for Old Town.
To be clear, the concept has been overridden over the years. It was a minor hurdle for officials as the city worked to develop Bud Clark Commons, opened in 2011, and didn’t stop the establishment of the self-run homeless camp Right 2 Dream Too, which was founded under protest of city homelessness policies.
Even so, the spirit of the agreement continues to feature in city plans. As part of charting growth in the central city, council in 2015 adopted a West Quadrant Plan that said social services wouldn’t be meaningfully expanded in Old Town.
With the latest outcry from some in the neighborhood, the city and county are figuring out how to square that lengthy history with a project officials believe is vital.
The new shelter might be a long-term resource, they say, where other recent emergency shelters have had expiration dates. (For instance, a 200-bed shelter in East Portland is slated to go offline at some point in the near future.)
More than that, city and county officials say Portland’s in crisis. They point to a recent count that suggests homelessness in the county increased by 10 percent in the last two years, and to the housing state of emergency declared by Portland City Council in 2015.
And while the county is still trying to reach a deal to lease the vacant warehouse it has in mind, officials say the new shelter would have benefits for Old Town.
“There’s no doubt in my mind the shelter advances your desires to have a more safe, livable community,” JOHS Director Marc Jolin said at last week’s meeting. “So much has changed. When we look today at what the need is... this is a good option.”
What comes next is uncertain. JOHS spokesperson Denis Theriault declined to comment on the city’s commitments in Old Town, noting that it wasn’t a county decision. Officials at the city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability and Prosper Portland (formerly the Portland Development Commission) deferred questions elsewhere.
Ultimately the call on how to proceed will be up to Wheeler’s office, which is weighing its options.
“We’re thinking about it,” says Cox. “We just have to do more work.”