Addressing Homelessness and Affordable Housing

In a way, I believe we are reaping what we have sown.  For decades, government’s approach to homelessness was to put bars under bridges to prevent camping, dividers on park benches to make it uncomfortable to lie down, and effectively criminalizing homelessness.  These aren’t solutions.  They are blatant admissions of not caring. Now the problem has been allowed to deepen so much that it can’t be ignored.  And people are dying.

The immediate need is clearly safety.  We must get people off the street and into a safer environment.  Unfortunately, the recent introduction of COVID-19 to this effort makes it much more challenging, but may also offer solutions.  For example, temporary shelters, similar to what is being done with field hospitals, may be an option in collaboration with an existing facility. The best of example of this would be to negotiate with the Bybee Lakes Hope Center located at the old Wapato Jail site on how to move as many people as possible to the property, including RVs and other vehicles.

Moving as many people as is possible to a single location will make it easier to provide services to them instead of forcing people to travel from place to place.  It will also be easier and more cost effective to provide food, medical, hygeine, laundry, and other services, as well as security.  Assigning a case manager as a single point of contact to each single adult or family to help them thru the process will reduce the amount of time from entry to a move to permanent housing.  All of these things currently exist at the Bybee Lakes Hope Center. We just need to assist in ramping up their capacity as fast as is possible and ensuring all necessary precautions are in place necessitated by the addition of COVID-19.

Many individuals with addiction and mental health issues can be placed in adult residential care facilities that can provide them with the wrap-around services they need to be successful. We can facilitate a more rapid movement of individuals to these facilities by fast tracking their approval and providing funding, if necessary.

Our goal should be to get people thru the ‘connecting to services’ process and into permanent affordable housing as quickly as possible.  Connecting to services should also include making sure that every individual who qualifies for a stimulus payment is helped to make sure it reaches them.

Before moving forward to discussing affordable housing, I think it should be said that if the City was serious about affordable housing, it would adjust business taxes on landlords and property owners so the level of tax is predicated on the affordability of their housing.  For example, higher than market rate housing or increase rents more than 3% annually pays more via business tax penalties; those who don’t raise rents or raise them 3% or less annually receive business tax credits.  It needs to be more profitable to provide affordable housing than luxury housing.  The only reason I can think of to explain why City Council won’t do something like this is because they want rents to be high because it means higher business tax revenue.  To keep that revenue stream the way it is, and to appear as if they care about affordable housing, they passed legislation that did effectively nothing to lower or stabilize rents and then asked Portlanders to approve a $258 million bond that is costing $181,460 per unit based on a total of 1,424 units.  We can do much better than this.

Increasing affordable housing stock must be done quickly for any effort to eliminate homelessness to be successful.  One way would be to make it easier and less costly for Portland homeowners to install one or more mobile tiny houses on their property.  I suspect the City of Portland is dragging its feet on mobile tiny houses because they don’t have a way to tax them like food carts, which pay business tax to the City.  My recommendation would be to formally grandfather in all existing mobile tiny houses and require an annual registration of $100 for all mobile tiny homes.  Mobile tiny homes would need to meet minimal standards, specifically, that they are indeed mobile and can be disconnected from utilities just like a food cart.  This could potentially add thousands of small, affordable housing units on single family residential properties and allow us to focus on higher density housing options along major transportation corridors and other appropriate locations and still have those single family residential properties available for denser development many decades from now when the need will most likely be even more acute.

Discounts should also be given to homeowners who build a permanent accessory dwelling unit/s (ADU) on their property.  Portland’s legislative agenda should include exempting homeowners who help increase permanent affordable housing stock with no resetting of their property taxes to current levels.

I would also like to create a mechanism that will allow us to increase density throughout the City on a case-by-case basis.  Specifically, any property along a major transportation corridor, regardless of zoning, will be able to petition for denser housing development without cost and without cost for any necessary zoning changes to accommodate the increased density.  Property owners will work with the Housing Commission of Portland, who would, in turn, make their recommendations directly to City Council.  Emphasis should be placed on multi-storied structures with intentional planning for, or at least the potential for, businesses on the ground level, in order to contribute to the effort of keeping job creation as close as possible on a parallel path with population growth.

In addition, we should be incentivizing minimalist living by reducing fees or providing options to reduce any owed business tax on a scale commensurate with the affordability of units and number of individuals housed.  For example, a building with 100 units, with each unit no more than 250 square feet and 200 individual residents living as dorm style roommates would get more of a tax credit than a building with 50 units with each unit no more than 500 square feet and only 70 residents.

Over the years, I’ve met lots of folks who place a higher value on how they live as opposed to where they live.  More specifically, there are lots of folks who are more than happy to share space or live in a very small space at a reduced cost in exchange for things like being able to eat healthier, have a wider range of available entertainment options, the ability to pursue a variety of personal hobbies or interests, or have the ability to travel more.  Encouraging options for these types of lifestyle choices will be very helpful in efforts to dramatically increase the amount of affordable housing stock, but it also provides Portlanders with an additional option of affordable housing.