A group of property owners in Portland’s Central Eastside are suing Multnomah County over the location of a new women’s shelter. They contend elected leaders botched the public engagement process and flouted zoning rules.
The developers behind the city’s Electric Blocks, a cluster of five trendy office buildings in the industrial area, filed their lawsuit Tuesday in Multnomah County Circuit Court. The plaintiffs say their millions of dollars in investments in the area will be wiped away if the homeless shelter opens as planned in mid-April at 120 S.E. Market St.
“New tenants will not come. Development of the Electric Blocks will stop,” the lawsuit states. “Plaintiffs’ investment will be lost. And the Electric Blocks will cease to exist.”
The Joint Office of Homeless Services, Portland and Multnomah County agency responsible for homeless spending, opened the location as a severe weather shelter this winter during a freezing spell the week of Christmas and once again in February. Earlier this month, county officials said they would be permanently using the space for a 125-bed shelter for women. The building was formerly a warehouse and distribution center, according to the lawsuit.
The county is leasing the property from real estate company Summit Properties Inc. Summit Properties is also named as a defendant in the suit.
The lawsuit arrives as some elected officials and advocacy groups such as People For Portland push for local government to dramatically expand their shelter options and crack down on public camping. Organizers of People For Portland, a controversial nonprofit structured as a 501(c)(4), announced last week that they’re trying to put a measure on the November ballot to redirect most of the money from the 2020 Metro Homeless Service measure away from creating supportive housing services and toward creating shelter space.
Advocates for people experiencing homelessness have condemned the plan, saying massive investments in temporary shelters fritter away money that could be used on long-term solutions. Tuesday’s lawsuit indicates there could be another group entering the already heated debate over how to best handle the housing crisis: people who could see new shelters in their neighborhood.
The Electric Blocks developers are not the only ones protesting the women’s shelter. The Central Eastside Industrial Council, a coalition of businesses and property owners that pay for extra public services such as trash cleanup, is also rallying against the shelters. Coalition members say there was little time to review the shelter plan and fear that people who take refuge there would struggle to find permanent housing.
“The proposed warehousing of shelter occupants is mis-aligned with the County’s stated housing goals,” coalition board President Eric Cress wrote in a letter Tuesday to city and county officials.
While the shelter will not open full-time until April 15, the property owners in the lawsuit predict a worst-case scenario for the site. The plaintiffs say the shelter will constitute a nuisance and will allow for the storing of “dangerous items,” such as fire stoves and weapons, “the stacking of garbage, needles, makeshift beds, water bottles, food wrappers,” and permit “noxious odors” to emanate from open showers and toilets.
Therefore, they argue in their legal filing, the site is likely to be “a public and private nuisance.” The property owners also allege the county violated Oregon’s Open Meeting Laws by failing to notify them about the new shelter as well as the city’s planning and zoning code by placing a mass shelter in an area zoned for industrial uses.
“The legal filing is really trying to say ‘Please slow down and take a pause,’” said Adam Tyler, the president of real estate firm Killian Pacific, the parent company for the plaintiffs and owner of the five office buildings. “There has not been any opportunity for people to be heard. There’s been no information shared with the public about the proposal.”
Tyler said he agreed with the call to build more shelters to address the homeless crisis, but not at 120 S.E. Market St., a spot roughly in the center of his five buildings. He said the space was a windowless warehouse and would isolate people in an industrial area removed from social services.
“We’re strongly supportive of shelters,” he said. “We just want them to be located in smart places.”
A spokesperson for the Joint Office declined to comment, citing the county’s policy of not speaking on pending litigation.