A zoning code change that would vastly expand the places where Portland's poorest residents can sleep will be voted on by the Portland City Council at the end of the month. A public hearing on the plan Wednesday revealed the depth of feeling on homelessness in a divided city.
The Shelter to Housing Continuum, in the works for two years, would make permanent changes to the zoning codes with the intention of helping unhoused Portlanders. The first part of the verbal testimony March 17 revealed both strong support and opposition—and a few recurring themes.
The one thing most people seemed to agree on was that an extension of Portland's housing emergency—declared in 2015 and currently set to expire April 4—is needed, with many stating how the COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened the housing crisis.
Another point of agreement among Portlanders: The plan needs fixing.
"I'm all for affordable housing, but this 'solution' is haphazardly done, lacks details, has environmental and social economic damages that will again severely impact BIPOC residents of Portland," wrote a man going by Randall P. in written testimony.
The current proposal would expand city zoning to make it easier for nonprofits, property owners and government agencies to open shelters in more areas throughout the city. It would also allow a single RV or tiny home to reside on a residential property.
It would also expand open space to allow temporary shelters—that is, tent camping—in places like city parks and golf courses. Additionally, it would permit the temporary use of community buildings without the need to declare an emergency.
Housing and homelessness advocates largely commanded the public testimony Wednesday, saying the proposal could be improved mainly by allowing more shelter possibilities. But an undercurrent of concern bubbled up in written testimony: More than 1,800 people submitted written comments, and many of those expressed reservations about whether shelters would be fairly distributed, and if recreational areas should be turned into temporary campgrounds.
The housing advocacy nonprofit Portland: Neighbors Welcome has drafted specific amendments to the proposal, and organized dozens of people to voice their support, including social justice advocate Candace Avalos and Street Roots director Kaia Sand. Those recommendations include extending the housing emergency to six months after the COVID-19 pandemic ends and removing the requirement for sewer connections for vehicle living.
"The only way you get people off the streets is with safe places for people to live," Avalos said. "That means we need more shelter options."
Other changes the group is suggesting aim to further expand the code changes by removing a ban on sanctioned shelters in open space zones and in rights of way with prior City Council approval. Another expansion would to allow faith- and community-based organizations to operate without any conditions in certain areas if they require fewer than 20 accommodations.
"I am in favor of relaxing zoning to accommodate more short term sheltering options to get people out of tents and cars and off the streets while we are building real affordable housing," said Gwen Luta, a city resident who testified in favor of the zoning changes. "Houselessness is costing us a lot of money; let's find solutions and keep Portland beautiful."
The verbal testimony by Portland: Neighbors Welcome supporters made up a large portion of the five-hour testimony period. But so did those with concerns about allowing park camping.
"Parks and natural areas are designated and purchased because of their value as wildlife habitat or recreation opportunities or both. They are lands to be valued and protected," resident Jeanne Galick said. "There's ample, available, vacant underutilized lands within the city for shelters without using open space. Allowing shelters in public parks removes public uses."
In written testimony Steve Linder wrote: "Parks are not an appropriate location for homeless shelters. Our parks are to overburdened as it is and often contain delicate natural environments. The damage from this proposal could take years to mitigate."
Other reservations came from residents of East Portland who fear that opening the zoning code without protection from shelter clustering will shove shelters to neighborhoods east of 82nd Avenue.
Ann McMullen of the Hazelwood Neighborhood Association said she supports the intent of the proposal but says language is needed in the code to ensure that the shelters will not be placed primarily in East Portland.
"We're asking for an amendment that ensure shelter distribution is equitable throughout the city and avoids concentrating shelters in areas that are already compromised, such as East Portland," McMullen says. "We're doing our part, we're happy to do our part, and East Portland is prepared to do more, but we're asking the rest of the city to do their part as well."
Tiffany Johnson, who testified on behalf of the Mt. Scott-Arleta Neighborhood Association, agrees with McMullen and others that responsibility for helping homeless Portlanders should be shared equally.
"All neighborhoods shall share the diversity of housing options such as shelters and villages and it shouldn't just be concentrated in Southeast," Johnson says. "We all need to share responsibility in taking care of community members."