Notes - Mayor's Staff on Housing and Homelessness Meeting 6-11-19
INTERFAITH ALLIANCE ON POVERTY
MEETING WITH MAYOR’S STAFF
WESTMINSTER PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH: FIRESIDE ROOM
JUNE 11, 2019 7:00-8:30 PM
Carol Turner (Co-Chair of the Interfaith Alliance) welcomed everyone and Rev. Beth Neel offered an opening prayer.
Carol then reviewed the desired outcomes for the evening:
· Increase knowledge and understanding of the City’s approach to implementing specific strategic responses to homelessness and housing
· Share the concerns of Interfaith Alliance members about these issues.
She then explained the process. Four broad topics would be covered using questions generated at the Mayor’s talk. Then attendees introduced themselves and Carol introduced the speakers: Cupid Alexander, Senior Advisor to Mayor Wheeler on housing, economic development and community involvement; Seraphie Allen, Policy Advisor to Mayor Wheeler on homelessness, livability, housing, Portland Children’s Levy and education policy issues; and Marc Jolin, Director of the Joint Office of Homeless Services.
Les Wardenaar (Treasurer of the Alliance and co-facilitator for the session with Carol T.) shared that the purpose of this evening’s session is to let representatives of city government speak to questions and concerns.
(Please note: the questions underlined at the beginning of each section below were provided in writing to the speakers and the attendees. However, with the informality of the session and the focus of having some questions from the attendees as well as time for limited discussion, there was not time to discuss/respond to each written question. Questions raised informally are also underlined. )
The Housing Emergency
•How long does “the City” believe it will be until the Mayor’s declaration of a “housing crisis/emergency” can be removed? What progress have we made toward ending the crisis or does it continue to worsen?*
•Which of the City’s affordable housing initiatives are working most effectively? Why? How much and how fast can the successful strategies be expanded?
Les posed these questions as a means of asking how things are going. Seraphie said that the declaration of the housing state of emergency has been renewed. Its purpose is to provide a means of leapfrogging some of the normal bureaucratic regulations to fast track housing initiatives. It makes housing the top priority. It takes time to change some of the more bureaucratic obstacles. The emergency will likely continue.
Marc Jolin added that shelter siting and other measures can proceed faster. This is not a short-term crisis. Regulatory changes are needed but take time. We have dramatically increased the scale of governmental interventions. It feels like we are not making progress but there has been a dramatic change. 35,000 people have been helped since 2015, moving into housing, prevented from losing housing, provided with emergency shelter.
Cupid Alexander said that the emergency is scheduled to end in 2021.
Les asked how are we doing in building affordable housing? Cupid said that the city is trying to incentivize the construction of more affordable housing. Portland and the state as a whole have been underbuilt for years. One challenge is how to increase density without drastically changing neighborhood character. Gentrification and displacement also loom as challenges. The decline of public housing because of Federal disinvestment is another huge problem. This is the first of many conversations about these problems.
Marc said that permanent supportive housing is needed for the chronically homeless. Our biggest deficit is in housing for people who make 30% of MFI (Median Family Income) or less. The city and region are committed to building 2,000 units for this group. SROs (Single Room Occupancy) are being modernized and brought back. There is a lot of momentum.
Les asked about displacement, particularly of people of color. What are the anti-displacement efforts alluded to by the mayor in his talk?
Cupid said that the mayor has acknowledged the unhappy history of displacement in Portland. People of color are wary because of this history. The Hill block project involves community discussions. The city now provides forgivable loans to homeowners to keep them in their homes in affected neighborhoods. The light rail project to the southwest has involved conversations about how to stabilize homeowners. Finally, the return project is seeking to welcome back people driven out of northeast Portland. Much emphasis has been on creating family housing, two and three bedroom units.
Longer-term Zoning and Policy Strategies
•The City’s “infill zoning change” is expected to be voted on by the Council in late summer or early fall. What is the objective? What will be the impact on our housing emergency be if it passes? What if it doesn’t pass?
• How is the new “inclusionary zoning” policy working in Portland? Are developers finding loopholes? Has their building slowed down? How can we assure that affordable housing under this provision remains affordable over time?
Carol asked about the status of the residential infill program (RIP).
Cupid said there has been push back because of fears of displacement. RIP allows different types of housing in our neighborhoods and this would help meet the need for affordable housing in the “missing middle.” Neighborhoods push back because of concerns about neighborhood character. How do we preserve neighborhood integrity while providing more housing? This is not an affordable housing measure per se but it can contribute.
The inclusionary requirement has prompted some developers to accelerate their housing permit requests.
Rev. Lynne Smouse-López asked whether there was an earlier program of inclusionary housing. Cupid said there was but it was an “opt in” program and didn’t work well.
Carol asked why Portland can’t move faster on housing? Cupid said that the city has improved its process but it’s still not enough. Roads, trees, parks, sidewalks are all part of the process. Lynne then asked if the city will help church sponsored projects like that of Portsmouth Methodist be fast-tracked. Cupid said he would discuss this with the mayor. Many faith communities are interested in helping. We need to come up with a process that works well.
John Elizalde said Portsmouth is a case study and needs to be helped. It’s real live stuff. Les said that costs imposed and obstacles erected have been enormous. Cupid responded that the commission form of government makes it more difficult to respond to situations involving more than one department.
•Are there any alternatives to the indignities of “sweeps”? Can the Mayor’s office and the City Council find and promote more property for camping communities—properties that won’t require “sweeps?”
•What is holding “the City” back from opening up more public spaces—either potential “camp-sites” or vacant public buildings—as temporary shelters for the homeless while efforts to increase the affordable housing supply are still lagging far behind the need? Is this a matter of money? Politics? How can we break through these obstacles?
Les said that homelessness is a critical issue for people of faith. It feels like the sweeps are especially cruel. What is the philosophy behind the sweeps? Can’t we find places for the people affected to go?
Seraphie said that we must consider the whole spectrum of homelessness. It is basically an economic structural issue. We try to insure that we are both preventing people from falling into homeless and addressing the current suffering while providing long term housing solutions. Our policies have changed over the past four years. We are seeking a balance between humane treatment and wider community livability issues.
Marc added that he has been working on homelessness for a long time. For years the practice was not transparent. One thing that has changed is that the city is transparent about complaints and responses. Teams go out and assess the situation. Garbage bags are being handed out. If there is a sweep it is recorded online. If you think the threshold for sweeps is too low you can investigate it by going to the website. There must be a cleanup mechanism because of the threat to public health and safety. Not doing anything is not an option. Also, there is a widespread belief that there is a simple, easy solution, but that’s not so. We have reduced obstacles to shelters. Shelter beds cost real money, up to $12,000. You need professional staff because many who come to the shelters have suffered trauma. The villages, too, are not cheap. The space is less a problem than the resources needed to maintain them. There are challenging tradeoffs, given limited resources. We are constantly seeking a balance among the various factors. Much has been done but we nevertheless still have more than 2,000 people outside every night.
Tom Hering asked about successful efforts elsewhere. Are there any on the west coast that we have learned from? Marc said that we know what we need to do to end homelessness: we need to house the houseless. We don’t have the capacity to do all that is needed. In Salt Lake City made a one- time big push and greatly reduced homelessness. So have we. But the situation is dynamic and Salt Lake City’s numbers have gone up again. San Antonio’s Haven of Hope is interesting but it places fewer people into permanent housing than we do. The navigator center reflects things done in San Francisco.
Possibilities of “Help” from other resources
•Is there anything happening at the State and/or Federal level that will significantly help Portland solve this crisis? Will lack of Federal support get even worse? What about Multnomah County? Is “the County” doing all it could to help?
•We hear about “tiny homes” as a successful strategy in some cities (e.g. Eugene, Cottage Grove), yet the Mayor seemed to insist that this strategy on an expanded scale is not economically viable in Portland? Why not? Can you give us some dollar figures to back up the Mayor’s claim?
John said we pay for the homeless one way or another. Shouldn’t we be pushing for more money? Seraphie asked how do we create a system that catches people and gets them out of homelessness as fast as possible. John asked what we must do if we want to house people in winter? Can we create villages? We can advocate.
Cupid responded that there is a lot of community push back. Some oppose villages because they don’t think people should be housed in tents, others for NIMBY reasons. The mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, is being hammered by many who don’t think he’s doing anything, despite enormous efforts. How do we maximize our outcomes? Some believe we are already doing too much. We must be intellectually honest. Many people do not want to take the time to learn about how the City operates or the balancing that needs to occur in responding to needs and the range of opinions. We have to have a honest conversation about reducing the mortgage deduction to fund housing. Marc said that short term sheltering is needed but this is not a solution. Where are people in tent cities going to go? Tradeoffs are inevitable.
Carol said that we have a responsibility for advocating but also for educating people.
Janet Yaden asked about the assessments. Marc said that some zones have a long history of camping and many complaints. Seraphie said that drug paraphernalia, trash, human waste are assessed. Is it close to a school? Points are assigned. Clean serve, which is a job program through Central City Concern, goes out and seeks to clean up. Outreach workers work with the homeless to seek solutions.
Mary Vogel said that a new system of land tenure is needed, like Proud Ground, a land trust that seeks to create affordable housing. It has a project for a multi-unit complex in the Overlook Neighborhood. The City staff created obstacles and the Overlook Neighborhood has challenged them as well. She urged attendees to write the Design Commission to support this kind of development.
Beth Neel said that the family WPC has housed in its parking has multiple issues. What is the City doing to respond? Cupid said that expunging old criminal records, creating living wage jobs are part of the answer. Creating affordable home ownership options is necessary. How can we be strategic and how can we provide clear evidence of success? Kaiser has a housing program, which the City is partnering with. In a commission form of government three votes are always necessary, sometimes more.
Marc said that the agencies the Joint Office funds have services to address the challenges people have. Housing case managers work with families and individuals. Partnerships and programs are there but they only serve a small fraction of the houseless population. The line is long.
Les announced that the Advocacy Team is meeting at 3:00 on Thursday with Chris Smith from the Planning and Sustainability Commission to discuss RIP.
Les thanked the speakers and Rev. Lynne Smouse-López closed in prayer.