TEN MONTHS at the helm of a city will shift your outlook.
Mayor Ted Wheeler came into office in January having run a campaign that pledged rapid expansion of shelter space and protections for renters. And while Wheeler’s seen progress on both fronts, he’s also been accused of failing to live up to his promises.
Now the mayor is making a significant (if predictable) push. On Wednesday, he’ll almost certainly win city council approval to extend the city’s housing state of emergency by 18 months—the longest extension since it was put in place in 2015.
It’s an admission that Portland’s still reeling from a crisis that’s shunting more people onto the streets. It’s also a good opportunity to check in with the mayor about his outlook on the city’s housing challenges.
Here are three takeaways from a recent interview.
The Emergency Could Linger in Death
The most meaningful piece of the city’s emergency declaration was that it neutered the zoning code. Suddenly, parcels of land that might have required extensive review in order to host a homeless shelter were available, no strings attached.
As Wheeler pushes to extend the declaration, he’s also telling housing officials to set conditions that give the city a basis to end its emergency status.
“I don’t have any particular formula in mind,” Wheeler says. But he notes that he can’t rule out changes to the zoning code to more easily allow shelter space.
“It would be a fight,” he says. “There are people who do not like to see less strings attached to their city government’s ability to locate a shelter. On the other hand, it continues to be a need.”
Shelter Expansion Is Less of a Priority
As Willamette Week recently reported, a candidate who once proposed to shelter all of the city’s homeless (4,177 at last count) by the end of 2018 has become a more restrained mayor. These days, Wheeler says he’d like to create 200 more shelter beds—for a total of roughly 1,800—and shift his focus to “the quality of beds.”
“There is a tremendous amount of resistance to spending more resources on a substantial number of shelter beds,” Wheeler says. He’s been swayed by the efforts of Commissioner Nick Fish and Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, who want to create thousands of low-income housing units attached to extensive services—a model designed to house the homeless residents who are hardest to serve.
“If you really want to get the most chronic homeless off the street,” Wheeler says, “you can’t just put a roof over their head and call it a day.”
He Wants More Money
The housing model being pushed by Kafoury and Fish isn’t cheap, particularly when it comes to providing social services.
And Wheeler, who openly frets about the millions the city spends on homelessness, has been hinting lately that officials could come to citizens for more cash.
“There are things that we have not done in this community,” he says. “Cell phone taxes. Some communities tax sugar products. Others dig deeper into their travel and tourism industries.... There are probably lots of other good ideas out there that I’ve never even thought of.”
In other words, stay tuned for another interesting 10 months.