Homelessness, economic recovery, and community safety are top of mind for three candidates vying for the open Multnomah County Commission seat this May.

The district 3 position, left open by Jessica Vega Pederson who was elected County Chair in November, covers a large swath of Southeast Portland—an economically diverse district that’s been impacted by Portland’s rising gun violence, economic downturn during the pandemic, and affordable housing crisis. Whoever is elected to fill the seat will finish the rest of Vega Pederson's term, ending on December 31, 2024.

Former policy director and nonprofit leader Ana del Rocío, current Portland Public School board member Julia Brim-Edwards, and activist Albert Kaufman have all tossed their hats in the ring to represent SE Portland on the county commission. 

The Mercury talked with the three candidates who have launched a campaign for the open county seat. Here are some takeaways from those conversations:

Addressing unsheltered homelessness is top priority 

Housing and homelessness remains a critical issue for candidates and voters alike. Homelessness in the region has ballooned in recent years, increasing by approximately 30 percent between 2019 and 2022 according to the most recent Multnomah County data

“The very top of the list is housing and transitioning individuals off the streets and into some sort of supportive shelter on their way to permanent housing,” said Brim-Edwards. “That’s the number one issue.”

Brim-Edwards emphasized the need for transitional housing in the region, stating that a sole focus on getting people into permanent housing would lead to homeless residents living on the streets in inhumane conditions for too long. The candidate also pointed to a need for easily accessible wraparound services, like behavioral health and addiction services.

Access to services is also part of the “compassionate,” non-punitive response to unsheltered homelessness del Rocío is championing. During conversations with district residents, del Rocío noticed a call for solutions that move people off the streets long term, not criminalize them for being unhoused. As a renter, del Rocío also said she understands the feeling of housing instability and the need for affordable options for renters.

“The combination of policy solutions rooted in community input, and then my own experiences as a tenant, really drives my campaign,” del Rocío said.

Kaufman also cited a need for improved wraparound services in the area, while pointing to group living as a possible way to address a lack of housing in the region. As someone who's lived in communal living spaces frequently, Kaufman argued that the rise in vacation rental companies like VRBO and AirBnB have made it more difficult for renters to find communal housing properties. If elected, he would push the county to limit zoning for vacation rental properties, similar to recent proposals in Oregon’s coastal communities.

Neither Brim-Edwards or del Rocío are sold on the city of Portland’s plan to develop sanctioned outdoor camps for homeless Portlanders. The city, unable to pay for the mass camp plan by itself, requested funding from the county in December to help move the project forward. Brim-Edwards and del Rocío said they agreed with the Multnomah County commissioners’ decision to request more evidence and proof of effective implementation before committing any funding to the city project. Kaufman declined to weigh in on the city’s mass camp plan, but noted that the county’s effort to collaborate with landlords to rent empty apartments to homeless residents was promising. 

What it means to recover

In the wake of the pandemic that exacerbated existing crises in the county, all three candidates have an eye on recovery.

For Kaufman, that means investing in small livability issues, like better road maintenance, installing more attractive public lighting, banning gas-powered lawn equipment, and the county participating with the city of Portland on investments in the arts. 

“There's a lot of easily achievable, small things that the county and the city could be doing to improve people's lives,” Kaufman said.

For del Rocío, recovery looks like meeting residents’ basic needs, and then some.

“A lot of times the conversation ends with, ‘Okay, people aren't hungry or homeless anymore,’” del Rocío said. “Well, that's not good enough. That's essential, but it's definitely not sufficient. When we’re thriving, we’re housed at minimum.”

Going beyond the minimum would look like supporting minority-owned businesses, as well as the development of green, living-wage jobs, while also investing in community safety. While del Rocío cited the benefit of investing in some non-police resources, like park rangers or behaviorial health outreach teams, she said that investing in community safety would first begin with asking community members what their safety concerns are and who they believe could best address those concerns.

Community safety is also top of mind for Brim-Edwards, who emphasized the role business leaders could play in advocating for solutions to criminal justice issues in the region, like pressuring lawmakers to address barriers that have led to the shortage of public defenders in the state. Brim-Edwards also noted that building coalitions of businesses and local leaders would be critical for economic recovery following the pandemic.

Adding new perspectives to the commission

While the race for the District 3 seat hasn’t drawn any strong criticisms of existing county leadership or divisive platforms, all three candidates note that they would provide a new perspective to the commission.

del Rocío, a child of Peruvian immigrants and self-described working class renter, says she understands the real impacts of what happens when government fails to provide adequate support and services for residents. Understanding those challenges, as well as her priority for community input, will help the county’s mission of serving the region’s most vulnerable residents, del Rocío said.

“Even if the pandemic hadn’t happened, we would still be in trouble because the government has long been run by the same kind of person: wealthy elites and corporate lobbyists,” del Rocío said. 

Brim-Edwards cited her experience as a former senior director at Nike, recently leading efforts to produce personal protective equipment for county healthcare workers, as well as her time on the Portland Public School board as evidence that she has the ability to build relationships and coalitions—something that will be needed as the region seeks to address multi-jurisdictional problems.

“Because of my background, I have had close working relationships, productive working relationships with all of the current city councilors and the county commissioners and feel that I can be a bridge to help with the recovery of East Portland,” Brim-Edwards said.

Kaufman said that while he is 61 years old, he prioritizes the voices of young people when voting and advocating for change as an activist. 

“Climate change is really upon us and it'll continue to affect everyone on the planet,” Kaufman said. "Young people are recognizing that they’re the ones who are going to have to live on a warmer planet, and so I want to hear from them, be inspired by them, and hopefully represent them.”

The special election for Multnomah City Commission District 3 is on May 16.