A sweeping zoning code change intended to make it easier to open shelters across Portland reached the finish line Wednesday. The city council voted unanimously to pass the Shelter to Housing Continuum project.
The code change relaxes the city’s zoning restrictions with the aim of providing more housing and shelter options for people at risk of houselessness or those already living on the street. The code change makes it easier for providers to site shelters and legalizes cheap housing options like RVs and tiny homes on wheels.
The zoning update has been in the pipeline of the city’s bureau of planning and sustainability since February 2019, when the council voted to extend the city’s housing state of emergency, which relaxed zoning code restrictions for shelter providers.
Commissioner Carmen Rubio, who oversees the city’s bureau of planning and sustainability, framed the proposal as a critical step to increase the city’s stock of shelters.
“Although the continuum can not end at shelters, we can’t forget to adequately resource the initial efforts to find permanent sustainability for our houseless neighbors,” Rubio said.
The project earned the backing of a wide array of homeless service and advocacy organizations, who viewed the code change as an effective tool to help people off the streets and into shelter and mobile housing. But it faced opposition by some Portlanders who feared it would lead to shelters sprawling in parks or congregated in East Portland where some residents felt the city had already cited a disproportionate percentage of shelters.
The council later tweaked the proposal to clarify that natural areas — including parks, forests, wetlands and golf courses — were not available to site short-term shelters (those open up to 180 days). These managed campsites would still be allowed if the city’s under a state of emergency. The council voted earlier this month to extend the housing state of emergency for one more year.
Other critics doubted the legalization of RVs and tiny homes on wheels would effectively tackle the city’s affordable housing crisis. Under current city rules, Portlanders are not allowed to live in these units considered vehicles by the state — though the city has not enforced this rule since 2017. The code change adds a provision to city code that explicitly allow these options in residential areas with one per lot.
But the plan’s vocal proponents said these housing options had an important role to play in sheltering Portland’s poorest residents without requiring public money. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler had maintained that, while the vote was not “the panacea to solving homelessness,” it would lead to more middle housing in the city and allow the city’s housing state of emergency to eventually expire.
“Theses ordinance gives us the foundation we need to continue our work to address homelessness without the need to be perpetually relying on emergency powers,” said Wheeler.
The proposal would also allow group homes — categorized in city code as units where unrelated people live together — to be built in single-family zones without requiring special permission from the city. Group homes are often considered a cheaper living option, as occupants can share a kitchen and bathroom.
The parts of the code change related to group living and tiny homes on wheels go into effect Aug. 1, according to Eric Engstrom, the principal planner for the project. The changes related to shelter siting are effective on Friday.