A new proposal to address the region’s homelessness crisis took center stage at Portland City Hall Wednesday: a massive overhaul to the city’s zoning code to allow for cheaper housing and more shelter beds.
The proposal, called the Shelter to Housing Continuum project, would provide more options for people at risk of houselessness or those already living on the street. The project has been in the city pipeline since February 2019, when the council voted to extend the city’s housing state of emergency, a declaration that eased zoning code restrictions for shelter providers.
Over 100 people signed up to testify on the proposal Wednesday, with the council session stretching from 2 p.m. through 7 p.m. Most testified in support of the overall goals of the project, though some said they wanted to see changes that would exempt future shelters from being located in parks and ensure they were evenly distributed across Portland.
Others framed the proposal as a critical tool that, in its current form, would address the region’s growing houseless crisis and aid the city’s poorest residents.
“I address you with the strong conviction that updating this code is about facing the fact that we live in the midst of a humanitarian disaster,” said Kaia Sand, the director of homeless advocacy group Street Roots.
“People live and die in all city zones,” said Sand, referencing a man she met that day covered in scabies and in dire need of medical care in an open space zone and a man who lost his toe last winter from frostbite in a central commercial district zone: “What this is about is allowing better organization within those city zones.”
The emergency declaration expires April 4. The Shelter to Housing Continuum Project — or S2HC — would change the zoning code to permanently relax these restrictions.
Since the city first declared a housing state of emergency, local leaders have tried to tackle the growing homelessness crisis on multiple fronts. Voters approved a tax in May expected to eventually funnel $100 million annually toward homeless services in Multnomah County. Both Metro and the city of Portland passed housing bonds to create more affordable homes in the region.
But it will take time for these efforts to make a significant dent in the area’s homeless population. As of the most recent point-in-time count in 2019, over 4,000 people were experiencing homelessness in Multnomah County. That number is expected to soon be even higher, with an eviction crisis looming.
“In the meantime people need shelter,” said Steph Routh, vice chair of the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission, in an interview with OPB. “This project is a toolkit to shelter all of our neighbors in a variety of ways.”
The commission, which serves as an advisory group overseeing changes to the city’s zoning code, recommended the project in late January. There will be another hearing on March 24 for council to discuss the proposal and consider amendments before a likely vote on March 31.
The code change is dense — the proposal comes in three volumes that touch on everything from right-of-way regulation to recreational vehicles. Here are some of the most significant changes:
Relax zoning requirements for shelters
Currently in Portland, most organizations looking to build a long-term shelter need to get special permission from the city. It’s a time-intensive decision process that can come with a public hearing.
The proposal would allow groups that want to construct smaller, long-term shelters to avoid this step in areas zoned for commercial, multi-dwelling and employment uses. This rule change would apply to both indoor and outdoor shelters. Until now, these outdoor shelters, such as the Kenton Woman’s Village, usually had to get permitting permission through a council action.
Larger shelters would still need to get special permission from the city.
Restrictions around temporary shelters would also be loosened under the code change. Under the current draft proposal, these short-term shelters could be placed anywhere in the city — including parks — and remain there for a maximum of 180 days.
Eric Engstrom, the principal planner for the project, said there’s been a deluge of emails from Portlanders, imploring the city not to let people camp in public parks. But he said that’s not what the project is about.
“The point is to build more facilities so that people don’t have to camp on the side of the road or in the park,” he said in an interview with OPB. “It’s really the opposite of trying to permit more ad-hoc camping around town.”
Eli Spevak, chair of the Planning and Sustainability Commission, told the council Wednesday that all new shelters would be required to have services onsite.
“Any shelter created under this code indoor or outdoor must have onsite management, trash service, sanitation and heat — exactly what’s missing from the informal camps we’re seeing and too many of our fellow Portlanders are experiencing right now,” said Spevak.
Many of the people who testified Wednesday in opposition of the project in its current form said they wanted to see the parks exempt from the code change.
Members of both the Portland Parks Board and Portland Parks Foundation argued the proposal should have an amendment to bar parks, golf courses and natural areas from hosting shelters. Members argued that sectioning off a portion of parks went against the intended use for the general public and the spirit of the recent measures passed by voters to support the park system.
“Declaring open space available for camping would unintentionally degrade resources and likely result in more people living in squalor as is currently happening in open spaces across the city,” said Paul Agrimis, chair of the Portland Parks Board.
The group found support in their argument from former commissioner Amanda Fritz, who briefly oversaw the parks bureau before retiring last December. She made an appearance Wednesday on the other side of the dais, testifying to the council in support of “nearly everything” in the project, though not the inclusion of parks.
Others Portlanders said Wednesday they were concerned that the code change would lead to shelters being concentrated in East Portland. At the commission’s request, the bureau produced a heat map showing what parts of the city would have potential lots available for shelter if the project passes. Nearly everywhere in the city would see land open up, but the biggest change would occur in East Portland.
This has caused frustration among many East Portlanders, who feel their area is already overburdened with services for unhoused people. The Hazelwood Neighborhood Association has opposed the code change in its current form, arguing it will cause the brunt of the homelessness crisis “to fall on the marginalized communities in East Portland.”
On Wednesday, Ann McMullen, a board member of the Hazelwood Neighborhood Association, asked the council to introduce an amendment to ensure the shelters would be equitably spread across all of Portland and not overly concentrated in East Portland.
“We’re asking the rest of the city to do their part as well,” said McMullen. “We have 95 neighborhoods.”
But city officials have emphasized this map is not a reflection of where the city actually intends to place shelters, nor does it mean shelter providers are going to rush to East Portland. Engstrom said, since 2017, the city-county joint office has only opened about eight new shelters.
“The difference between a neighborhood that has 100 possible sites and neighborhood with 500 possible sites is not really meaningful given that our pace is eight new shelters in five years,” he said.
Marc Jolin, director of the city-county Joint Office of Homeless Services, emphasized the office makes decisions on where to base shelter based on need in the area — not based on how much land was available.
“What the code changes do not do is change how we make decisions about where to site shelter. And it does not — as some have expressed concern — mean that we’ll be moving a disproportionate amount of shelter to East Portland or any other part of the city.”
Ease restrictions for group homes
Group homes — categorized in city code as units where unrelated people live together — are often a cheaper living option, as occupants can share a kitchen and bathroom. This term includes single-room-occupancy buildings, dorms, retirement care facilities or co-housing complexes.
But the current city code is strict about where these types of homes can be built. The proposal would allow group homes to be built in single-family zones without requiring special permission from the city. The size of the group home would be capped at 3,500 square feet.
Allowing people to live permanently in RVs or in tiny homes on wheels
Under the current rules, Portlanders are not allowed to live in RVs or tiny houses on wheels, though the city has deemphasized reinforcement since 2017. The rule change would add a provision to city code that explicitly allow these cheaper housing options in residential areas — one per lot. (Tiny houses without wheels are already allowed.)
The proposal would require a utility hookup, so those living in the RVs or tiny houses have access to electricity and be connected to the city’s water and sewer system. The vehicles can’t be in the right of way or the front yard.
Supporters with the group Portland: Neighbors Welcome, a pro-housing advocacy group, testified Wednesday in support of the project, though asked the council to make minor amendments including nixing the sewer connection requirement. According to the group, sewer connections can cost between $10,000-$20,000 and could risk making these vehicles prohibitively expensive for residents.
“These improvements are critical to solving our housing crises and we need each of them,” said Trisha Patterson, board member of Portland: Neighbors Welcome. “But there is more this council can do to ensure we make the most of these vital tools.”