A Multnomah County judge ruled Monday that an effort to radically alter the way the Portland region addresses homelessness cannot move forward in its current form.

Since March, the nonprofit political group People for Portland has been trying to get a measure on the November ballot that would shift most of the money generated from a tax on affluent residents away from services to keep people in their homes and toward creating temporary shelters. The proposal also sought to make governments in the Portland region enforce any public camping bans they had on the books to receive the money.

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Lawyers for the regional government Metro rejected People for Portland’s proposal twice, saying that the wording and the intent of the measure violated the Oregon Constitution. People for Portland appealed the decision in April to the Multnomah County Circuit Court.

Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Stephen Bushong sided in Metro’s favor Monday, ruling People for Portland made two legal errors.

First, the group failed to include all of the text from the Metro code that the ballot measure sought to change, meaning voters would be unable to fully understand what the initiative was trying to do.

Second, and most significantly, the measure proposed changes to Metro’s code that went beyond the regional government’s authority, according to Bushong. The judge ruled Metro, a government agency that handles land use and other core services in the Portland region, has “no authority to dictate” through code how each county spends tax money for homeless services.

Sleeping pods ad the Arbor Lodge shelter site in North Portland, operated by Do Good Multnomah, Jan. 20, 2022. Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Stephen Bushong ruled Monday that People for Portland made two legal errors in its quest to put a measure before voters to radically alter the way the Portland region addresses homelessness.

Sleeping pods ad the Arbor Lodge shelter site in North Portland, operated by Do Good Multnomah, Jan. 20, 2022. Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Stephen Bushong ruled Monday that People for Portland made two legal errors in its quest to put a measure before voters to radically alter the way the Portland region addresses homelessness.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff, / OPB

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Voters in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties created the tax in 2020 when they passed the Metro Homeless Service measure. The 1% tax on high-income earners is expected to generate about $250 million annually for supportive housing services that help people at risk of homelessness remain in their housing. That includes case management, rent assistance and shelter.

People for Portland’s measure aimed to require each county spend three-quarters of the money they receive through the tax on homeless shelters. The counties would have to continue spending the bulk of the tax money on shelter until each county had enough beds for every person experiencing homelessness in the region.

“Metro cannot do that,” Bushong’s ruling reads. “Those matters are not matters of metropolitan concern within Metro’s home rule powers.”

The judge ruled that Metro’s attorney had made one legal error themselves in arguing that People for Portland’s proposal was administrative rather than legislative. (Under Oregon law, a petitioner can only put forward a ballot measure that tries to make a legislative change, not an administrative one.) But it did not impact Bushong’s ultimate decision.

People for Portland said the ruling in Metro’s favor represents a “dramatic change in Oregon’s initiative system that will limit the ability of the people to have a say in their government.”

“We are very disappointed in this ruling,” the group wrote in a statement. “This is not a victory for Metro – they have only succeeded in silencing voters and defending a homeless crisis status quo that is failing everyone.”

People for Portland said it is evaluating next steps.

Two advocacy groups that have come out in strong opposition to the ballot measure — Coalition of Communities of Color and HereTogether, a cohort of business groups and nonprofits that championed the 2020 ballot measure — cheered the decision.

“The ruling today is a win for people experiencing homelessness and our entire community,” the groups wrote in a joint statement. “People for Portland’s political antics have been an intentional distraction from the real work happening on the ground right now to end our homeless crisis.”

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