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FEMA reviewing whether homeless shelter plans comply with deed restrictions

Note: This story appears in the February 2022 print version of the Southwest Community Connection.

The city of Portland is unlikely to grant a land use review of a proposed outdoor Safe Rest Village at the Sears Armory in Multnomah Village, but the federal government is taking a closer look at it.

In December, following a general membership vote from the Multnomah Neighborhood Association, the association sent a formal request to the city for a conditional land use review of the proposed homeless shelter site.

The Sears Armory property is deed-restricted for emergency management use and currently is zoned for general employment, with an emphasis on industrial use.

Some neighbors say the city's plan presents a potential conflict with that deed restriction, as well as city planning code and due process.

"In this case the city is not following their own code for the placement of Safe Rest Villages," James Peterson told the Multnomah Neighborhood Association board. Peterson brought the issue before the neighborhood group and requested a vote.

Heather Hafer, public information officer for the Portland Office of Finance and Management, said such a review is not required because the proposed use is temporary.

"The Safe Rest Village use of the Sears Armory parking lot is a temporary use, and as such is under the temporary activities chapter of City Code. The Bureau of Development Services has confirmed that, given this will be a temporary use, it does not need conditional-use review, a public hearing or public notice, related to land use regulations," Hafer said.

But the city may face a roadblock from a higher authority.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Sleeping pods planned for the parking lot of the Sears Armory will share space with Southwest Capitol Highway project equipment and supplies until work is completed in December 2022.The Federal Emergency Management Agency is considering whether the proposal for a managed homeless camp at the Sears Armory violates its deed restrictions.

The U.S. Department of Defense donated the surplus property to the city of Portland in 2012. The deed requires that it be used "primarily for the purpose of providing emergency management services."

Portland City Commissioner Dan Ryan has proposed that the parking lot be used as one of six Safe Rest Villages to house and provide services to the homeless.

Officials with the federal General Service Administration and city of Portland told Pamplin Media Group that FEMA currently is reviewing the proposal to determine whether it complies with the deed restriction. Ryan argues that housing the homeless is emergency management because the City Council has declared a housing emergency.

"GSA monitors the compliance by state or local public agencies regarding deed restrictions on properties conveyed by the U.S. government for emergency management purposes, and if necessary, seeks to remedy any issues of non-compliance," U.S. General Services Administration Branch Chief Monica Pech wrote in a Jan. 4 email. "However, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is the agency responsible for determining whether or not the city of Portland's proposed use is in accordance with emergency management use purposes as described in the 2012 Quitclaim Deed. FEMA is currently reviewing the city of Portland's proposed plan in order to determine if the plan is in accordance with emergency management purposes."

The deed restrictions describe emergency management as including but not limited to: "emergency operations planning and support; risk assessment and mitigation; public outreach, training and education; emergency preparedness and response; decision making and policy planning; first responders training and exercises; logistics management; and recovery and rebuilding."

Hafer said the city is aware of the FEMA review.

Armory was relegated for emergency operations

City officials originally said they would use the property as a heavy equipment staging area. In January 2011, then-Mayor Sam Adams told neighbors that basing equipment there would help the west side of Portland recover faster from a natural or man-made disaster, especially if bridges are compromised.

Then and now, all of the city's heavy equipment is stored on the east side of the Willamette River.

But that transfer never happened. No significant changes have been made at the building or adjacent parking lot since the first announcement. Since then, the Portland Police Bureau and Portland Fire & Rescue have held occasional training exercises there. The Portland Water Bureau has stored some trucks there and the Portland Bureau of Transportation is using a portion of the parking lot as a staging area for the Southwest Capitol Highway Improvement Project, which includes some seismic improvements to the road that runs through Multnomah Village.

Another motion that came before the neighborhood association in December suggested the neighborhood association ask the city to fully fund the Sears Armory as an emergency operations and preparedness center, citing two ordinances from nearly a decade ago, when the property was turned over to the city. Proponents of the motion said communities "could be in harm's way and potentially become homeless after a disaster," without a fully functioning emergency operations center.

But the city wants to use the site to serve Portlanders who already are homeless.

Moses Ross, chair of the Multnomah Neighborhood Association, said the request for a land use review was "not an indictment of the project."

"This was a forum to allow people to express themselves and blow off steam about this, as well as allow the neighborhood association to establish a perspective on this," Ross said of the Dec. 14 neighborhood video conference meeting, in which nearly 100 people logged in. Ross cautioned attendees that "we don't know all the facts yet," about how the site will be managed.

Past problems haunt project

The property was used as an indoor temporary homeless shelter between November 2015 and February 2016. Before it opened, then-Mayor Charlie Hales promised neighbors it would only be used overnight for six months.

Some neighborhood residents oppose Ryan's proposal because of problems they say occurred when the armory was used as a homeless shelter in prior years. Ryan and Safe Rest Village staff members are scheduled to appear before the neighborhood association during an online forum at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 27.

Aside from the FEMA review, a legal complaint has been filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court by Patrick Cashman, asking the courts to intervene and force a land use review of the project.

As planned, Safe Rest Villages will be managed, transitional homeless shelters offering basic onsite amenities like restrooms, showers, laundry and other wraparound services, according to the city.

Employees in City Commissioner Dan Ryan's office told the Multnomah Neighborhood Association leadership that the Sears Armory site likely would house around 40 outdoor pods roughly the size of small sheds, with a maximum of two people per pod. A 25-foot buffer around the perimeter reportedly will be included. Early plans indicated there could be up to 60 pods at the Southwest Portland site.

The Safe Rest Villages are a core piece of the city's and county's plans to provide more available shelter for the thousands of unhoused Portland residents. The latest report from the county and Street Roots — a weekly news outlet and homeless advocacy organization — indicates at least 126 people died in 2020 while living unhoused.

As the city of Portland works with Multnomah County via the Joint Office of Homeless Services to establish new shelter solutions, both governments are under pressure to improve past practices. A 2017 county auditor's report noted joint office found success in transitioning people off the streets and into shelter or housing, but the office relied on a limited number of homeless service providers and didn't thoroughly track or evaluate how funding was used. A lack of critical data created inefficiencies and made it hard to measure the success of past city and county efforts.

"While we don't doubt that current funds are going to help people in need, the question remains: are we helping those most in need and doing it in the most efficient way with the most effective outcomes possible? To know that (the joint office) needs to move quickly to become the data-driven system they strive to be," a 2017 Multnomah County Auditor's letter to city and county officials stated.

The audit also criticized the joint office for a lack of communication with stakeholders and the public about how well the systems were performing. Portlanders' latest frustrations hint at a lack of improvement on that front.

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