The Portland City Council identified two continuing concerns – homelessness and affordable housing – as its biggest concerns for 2022.
Councilors on Monday, Dec. 13, also identified sustainability and climate, the city budget, and adoption of inclusive practices as other top goals.
And part of that last goal may include the creation of a department aimed at addressing the nearly three dozen recommendations made by the former Racial Equity Steering Committee.
Interim City Manager Danielle West said she is looking into creating the office that would act on the committee’s final report, which was delivered to the City Council in April. West said the council will have a workshop on this suggestion in January.
Mayor Kate Snyder said the council initially planned to send the recommendations to its various committees, but there was concern about the already heavy workloads of the panels.
Much of Monday’s three-hour discussion was spent on homelessness and housing affordability. Councilor Victoria Pelletier said the two items are related.
“If we are going to prioritize providing support to our unhoused community, I’m really hoping it can be coupled with how we’re tackling affordable housing,” Pelletier said.
She said lack of housing is a large issue and simply providing resources and emergency shelter doesn’t do enough to address the affordability question.
“These are two issues that really need to go together and need to be solved in tandem with one another,” Pelletier said.
Councilor Tae Chong, however, said permanent housing is not the only item needed to address the city’s homelessness. He said about two-thirds of those seeking shelter in the city, including asylum seekers, aren’t Portland residents and the majority of those staying in the shelters are there for short-term stays.
“If we’re going to talk about housing, we need to look at the citizen initiatives and how that was a barrier to creating the missing middle,” Chong said, referring to a slate of referendums approved in 2020, including the Green New Deal and a cap on annual rent increases. “We’ve seen a huge decrease in housing being built because of the citizen initiatives.”
There was also discussion about the need for transitional housing. Councilor Mark Dion brought the issue up, saying for the chronically unhoused there must be a bridge step between being on the streets and being in an apartment on their own.
“We don’t have the immediacy of housing stock that’s designed to receive people who are trying to get back to some sense of normalcy,” Dion said. “I believe in the concept of housing first. But that stock is different than what’s being developed as low-income and affordable housing.”
There was also agreement that addressing affordable housing and homelessness requires a regional response, and can’t be addressed by the city alone.
No action was taken Monday night. Councilors previously delivered their desired goals for 2022 to a facilitator, Carole Martin, who distilled those lists down to a consensus of five.
Martin said the city is facing “extraordinary times,” which led West to describe some of the challenges facing the city in 2022.
“We’re pretty strained right now,” she said. “We have 183 vacancies that span many departments.”
In addition, six department heads – including West – are serving as temporary appointments. That puts additional strain on city staff, she said.
Those vacancies will make various policy ideas and budget requests challenging, Dion added, so councilors will have to be realistic about what they request.
“It’s really tough to be a staff person when you are given something you know won’t be fully realized,” he said.
Dion, who now chairs the Finance Committee, said another issue surrounding the budget, and why he listed it as a goal, is the “capacity of our taxpayer to foot the bill.” He said while some property tax owners can afford the tax increases that came from the city’s recent revaluation, he expected many could not.
“It is the most important decision we make,” he said regarding the budget. “It translates to our ability to have some (residents) give up economic benefit to translate to what we want to do.”
Councilor Andrew Zarro had mentioned addressing the city’s local economy and the continued effects of the pandemic on those businesses. While not a goal, he said it was worth consideration. That item will likely be reflected in the budget goal.
“It’s worthy of being a top priority,” Zarro said. “It’s going to show up whether it’s a goal or not.”