Homelessness remains everyone's favorite political golfball
The City Club of Portland is trying to make itself more relevant, youthful and digital under executive director Julia Meier.
Best known for its Friday Forum lunchtime talks, which had been aired on Oregon Public Broadcasting radio, the most recent panel discussed the significant Portland issues of 2019.
On Dec. 20 at the Ecotrust building, the panelists were city commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, housing policy advisor for Governor Brown Shannon Singleton, and attorney Will Rasmussen, who is a partner at Miller Nash Graham & Dunn. Moderator Dan Haggerty, who anchors the KGW evening newscasts, kicked off by asking what they thought was the most important issue for Portland going into 2020.
Singleton said it would be no surprise that "housing and homelessness is the priority."
Going after golfers
Rasmussen added, "I will absolutely agree homelessness is number one…and the social services surrounding homelessness." He said beyond bond measures to build more housing, "We also need to …offer more services regarding the human component to help people transition into the sheltered apartments."
Commissioner Hardesty took a similar tack, saying housing and houselessness is number one. "When we're talking about affordable housing, we have to ask ourselves affordable for whom? Because most of the housing that we're building today, you can work three full-time jobs and not be able to pay first and last month's security deposit." She raised gasps and approving murmurs by suggesting that city-owned golf courses could be built-over with affordable housing.
Haggerty then raised the deadly shooting of Koben Henriksen by Portland police on Dec. 8, 2019. Henriksen had been schizophrenic and lived on the streets for a decade. He was brandishing two knives at passing cars when he was killed. His parents told the media it was "suicide by cop." The police chief and the mayor called it a failure of the mental health system. Haggerty asked how mental health plays an issue in police resources, homelessness and taxes and asked what needs to change.
Hardesty said suicide by cop was a term only used by the police. She then stressed the lack of beds for mental health patients, her belief that police shoot too soon, and that often the wrong first responders are sent to these low-level 911 calls that don't involve criminal activity.
She said the most significant increase in 911 calls has been for unwanted people from people suspicious of strangers.
"All our systems are failing us miserably," said Hardesty. "We can point fingers, or we can actually roll up our sleeves and do the work necessary to make sure that no one else is failed by city systems that have not been changed since 1887."
Hardesty and Singleton praised Portland Street Response, an idea from the Street Roots newspaper team. Portland Street Response is to be a "third branch of the city's first responder system," along with fire and police. The pilot program in Lents will send a medic and a crisis worker to 911 incidents featuring homeless people.
"The idea that somebody can navigate the outpatient system is just unrealistic," said Singleton. "We have a massive, massive turnover and lack of workforce to actually address the problem regarding that shooting."
Rasmussen, who is on the board of the Portland Business Alliance, which has a keen interest in homelessness, mainly for its detrimental effect on downtown businesses, said the shooting was "an absolute tragedy . . . The Business Alliance and business community generally, agrees with my two co-panelists. Our system is currently driving folks to emergency rooms into the street because we don't have a holistic front-to-back approach for dealing with people with a mental health crisis." He added that the PBA supports Portland Street Response.
For those who think we are "losing the war, what ideas need more support, and which ones need to go?" asked the moderator.
Hardesty responded, "As of last year, the city of Portland spent $71.5 million on housing and houselessness, $32.5 million of that from the city's general fund."
She added that citizens had passed two housing bonds in the area recently, but "So far, we've built 600 plus housing units to this year. We actually need to build about 1,400 units annually to get ahead of this curve."
And she added the Portland metro area median family income for a family of four is now $78,500. "Most people who are working for a living and who are living on an edge are not making $78,500. So, when we talk about affordable housing, we say 80% of MFI (median family income), and what we mean is that if you don't have $62,800, you won't be eligible for this affordable housing unit. So we have allowed the language of affordability to be corrupted by folks who really don't care whether or not they're building housing that people can afford to live in."
Singleton said, "We have to be willing to have a values conversation. It is more expensive to keep people homeless than it is to house them and wrap services and support around them. So even if you're not behind it because you believe it's all right, it's cheaper for the community to do this differently."
Rasmussen gave the business and development perspective.
"It is shockingly hard to get paperwork in order to build affordable housing. The housing emergency was declared three mayors ago. When somebody shows up on my doorstep and says, 'I've got the funding stacked up between private money, local money and federal money that I think totals the amount necessary to build this housing, let's go do it,' I have to tell them, 'Tack on 25% and if you're lucky it might be four years from today that we're able to open the door and put a roof over someone's head.'"
Strong mayor, weak mayor
Asked why several mayors are reluctant to run for reelection, Rasmussen blamed it on the commissioner form of government. He added that he would not be surprised to see the voters elect to change it to a system that makes being a mayor "a little bit more feasible, a little less painful" and better able to make decisions.
Haggerty brought up climate change, cap and trade, and the Republican walk-out from the legislature in Salem and asked: "How does this legislation and the turmoil in Salem affect life and business in the city of Portland?"
Rasmussen said he was personally disappointed by the process and how "a non-majority of the legislature can just deny the ability for the state to make any decision that requires legislative action is somewhat surprising to me." He added that as a lawyer, the process was "not ideal to me."
Hardesty too was disappointed but said Portland had a lot to be proud of, having put green initiatives forward and not wait for the rest of the state.
Singleton said she thought some good policy had come out of Salem recently, around housing, including "some pretty massive increases in rent assistance dollars that come into our local community, as well as dollars into development and supply, specifically (in) permanent supportive housing."
Stick or twist?
In a lightning round where he asked for them just to agree (spot-on) or disagree (you're wrong), Haggerty asked if scooters were dangerous, and the council was taking too long to make a decision.
Hardesty said scooters could be just one part of a transportation system, but she sees too many people riding without helmets, two-up, and underage.
Q: Portland will never have a baseball team.
Hardesty: Spot on.
Rasmussen: You're wrong. (He liked the Portland Beavers and likes the Hops.)
Singleton: Spot on.
Q: None of us will be alive to see another bridge across the Columbia River.
Hardesty: Spot on.
Rasmussen: You're wrong. "I think the politics are lining up this time," he said, adding that the Washington house has changed.
Q: Donald Trump will win reelection.
Hardesty: You're wrong.
Rasmussen: You're wrong.
Singleton: You're wrong. "But I thought he wouldn't win in 2016 too."
Going back to asking more open questions, Haggerty asked how could Trump's trade war change business and agriculture in the state?
Rasmussen: "It's running people out of business, and it impacts rural Oregonians' daily lives.
When federal policy goes wonky, and people can't move a pear across a political line, there's someone who spent their life growing that pear who might literally lose the farm as a result of this."
Vice taxes and costs
On Oregon's marijuana surplus and the increase in marijuana vaping: Are we headed in the right direction with marijuana?
Rasmussen: "I think OLCC is understaffed on this. On the vape issue, we can't have people dying all the time from this. The black market has contributed to that. We need to respond quickly to this," he said, adding that he was not happy that the courts threw out the governor's executive action in vaping.
Hardesty replied, "Is it legal to smoke under the age of 18? Retailers should be held accountable for selling to underage individuals. The OLCC could not tell me they are under-resourced. If they're not the right people, maybe we need another agency." She added she didn't like the idea of Multnomah County telling adults what they could and couldn't do, such as banning the sale of menthol cigarettes because they affect communities of color. "We can't be everybody's big brother, but we can put laws in place that hold people accountable for the laws that we have."
On the subject of legalized sports betting, which Oregonians can now do from a phone, Singleton said, "We've had some sort of system with gambling for quite some time. When I was doing mental health therapy and gambling addiction treatment, we actually used to tell people, 'You've already paid for this. It's free because you've already paid for it, because of the lottery.'"
What is the City Club of Portland?
The City Club researches matters such as homelessness and the commissioner form of government and addiction policy and does advocacy from the state to the local level. It also has its Civic Scholars program to get students from regional high schools interested in real-world civics. A group of them were at the recent Friday Forum and asked questions. The forum is now aired on XRAY FM radio and live on KGW's Facebook feed.
Regular membership is $165 per year.
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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