Metro Recognized Voters Weren’t Seeing Benefits From Housing and Homeless Measures, but Its Solution Hit a Brick Wall

A consultant formulated a plan. Politics got in the way.

CASCADE CONCRETE: Snow covers tents in a Portland alley on April 11, 2022. (Blake Benard)

Metro had a problem.

The regional government convinced voters to put up $653 million for a housing bond in 2018 and $2.5 billion to reduce homelessness in 2020. But by early last May, agency officials realized the public wasn’t seeing results.

So they went looking for a salesman.

What follows are excerpts from a public records request WW filed to see how the agency tried to get on top of what pollsters say is the single most pressing issue in the upcoming May 17 election.

Last May, Metro sent solicitations to five local strategic communications firms, looking for help convincing the public that money from the housing bond and homeless services measure was having an impact on the streets.

Here’s what the agency said in the solicitation:

We’re moving quickly and really need to get the communications work up and running as we head toward our official program launch this summer. We’re looking for a comprehensive communications strategy with a strong focus on racial equity in its delivery.

By November, staff had arrived on the top proposal, which came from Winning Mark Public Affairs, a new branch of the political consulting firm run by Mark Wiener. Noah Siegel, a former senior Metro and Portland Bureau of Transportation staffer, came on board to develop new business in strategic communications. (Wiener says he had no involvement in the contract.)

Here’s how Elissa Gertler, Metro’s planning development and research director, described the need for the $150,000 contract to the procurement department:

Metro’s housing program is a relatively new and evolving body of work for the agency and as staff are in the process of developing and refining our communications and engagement efforts, we recognized that we need additional capacity, specialized-skill and support to effectively do this work.

Metro, which handles land use and transportation planning, among other functions, has a big communications office: 32 employees and a budget of $4.75 million. That might seem like enough resources to craft a message on how taxpayer money was making a difference.

But Metro spokesman Nick Christensen says most of those communications specialists work on specific subject areas, such as recycling or the Oregon Zoo, or specific tasks, such as website maintenance. Christensen says in order to move quickly, it was more efficient to contract outside help. Christensen notes Metro was headed in that direction even before People for Portland, the nonprofit that’s seeking to take over spending of the homeless services tax, began operations in July.

“We knew we needed to talk about the program,” Christensen says. “And we hadn’t figured out how to do that yet. It was really critical that we figure out how to get the message out.”

Metro hired Winning Mark, and the firm prepared a communications plan, laid out in a Feb. 16 memo:

It will take time for people to see the results, but we don’t have time to spare. The general public was already losing patience in 2020, and the pandemic has exacerbated the situation dramatically. Many voters believe that the problem is government, and there is widespread skepticism that the work is getting done as promised. The biggest problem is the eye-test; even if good things are happening every day, people continue to see public camping, garbage and disorder. They will only be able to recognize progress when these things diminish.

Winning Mark’s nine-page plan contained a variety of approaches: social media, seeking press coverage, digital advertising, a promotional video, and the deployment of trusted community representatives who could talk about what was working.

The most important tool: data.

The public’s view on the supportive housing approach remains favorable, but support has weakened since the funding measure was first proposed in 2019. Research shows that many people have not heard much about the work that is underway, and many do not believe that it is actually happening. In order to begin changing perceptions, high-profile initiatives should be paired with a clear narrative of progress driven by data.

Metro got to work. On March 9, the agency alerted reporters that its data dashboard, with various measurements of progress, was live

But on March 28, People for Portland filed a ballot measure seeking to dictate how revenue from the homeless services measure would be spent in future.

That move forced Metro to immediately shut down Winning Mark’s work, Christensen says, because Siegel’s communications could now be seen as a violation of laws that prohibit public agencies from engaging in political campaigns. The plan was ready and a few ads had already run.

Siegel says the abrupt end of the communications effort is unfortunate. “The goal was to get out of the political crossfire,” he says. “We wanted to create space for people to tell the story.”

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