The Portland City Council voted 3-2 Wednesday to set aside a 14.5-acre industrial site in Northwest Portland for a massive homeless shelter proposed by Pearl District developer Homer Williams.
The proposal sparked an unusually contentious and bitter debate and revealed how deeply the council is divided over Mayor Charlie Hales’ shifting initiatives to address homelessness.
Housing Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who’s thrown his support behind the proposal, characterized it as a game-changing opportunity to tap into private dollars for the city’s effort to end homelessness.
“We had aspirations of being able to engage the private sector in a meaningful way. Today, we have that opportunity,” Saltzman said.
Williams is pursuing two projects simultaneously. In the short term, he has proposed a temporary shelter, privately funded and run by the Portland Rescue Mission, with access to drug and alcohol treatment and health services for 400 homeless people.
“It’s a community problem. I think that it’s imperative, if we’re going to make progress, that the public and private side both need to get involved,” Williams said in his testimony before the council.
Dozens of people signed up to testify, with a majority in opposition to the proposal.
Many of the opponents were Northwest Portland residents who feared changes in their neighborhood, but opponents also included homeless people, who said they felt disrespected by the proposal and were not interested in sleeping in a warehouse.
The Terminal 1 site is zoned for heavy industry and is located in an industrial sanctuary. It’s largely undeveloped, save for a large paved lot with a 96,000 square foot warehouse. The zoning prevents permanent improvements to the warehouse and the shelter operator will have to truck in removable heating, restrooms and other amenities.
In the long term, Williams has proposed re-zoning the site to build a permanent shelter and hub for services for over 1,000 people, modeled after the Haven For Hope shelter in San Antonio. That project would likely require tens of millions of dollars of public funding to build and up to $3 million a year to operate. The council has sought a $100,000 grant from local government agency Metro to explore re-zoning the site.
“Make no mistake. I support the larger vision of a campus for homeless people,” Saltzman said. “But we’re taking it in baby steps.”
Neither Williams nor the Portland Housing Bureau have provided the council or journalists with a written proposal or operating budget for the dual proposals. Williams told the council he will fill in the plan’s details later.
“In my business, it starts with the land. In this case, in order to do what I think is necessary, we have to have a significant piece of property. It needs to be close to the city,” he said.
Two commissioners, Nick Fish and Amanda Fritz, voted against the proposal. They raised concerns about the loss of industrial land, the rushed process used to make it available to Williams and the Housing Bureau, and the idea of sheltering so many homeless people under a single roof.
“Nothing about us without us,” Amanda Fritz said, echoing a motto of local homeless activists who have called for smaller-scale shelters and self-organized homeless villages and tent cities.
Fish, a longtime champion of affordable housing and the Commissioner for Public Utilities, has spent the past two weeks speaking out publicly and organizing opposition to Williams’ plan. The Bureau of Environmental Services, which he manages the land, put Terminal 1 up for sale last month and bids on the site are due Aug. 15.
“In my eight years on the council, I can’t recall any precedent for an action like this. Let’s be clear, there is no plan, no funding, and there has been no public process and no due diligence,” Fish said.
The council voted in 2014 to declare the site surplus and sell it, and the Bureau of Environmental Services has spent two years preparing the site for sale. Fish suggested the the mayor and the council were essentially changing the rules to favor an idea put forward by powerful developer.
“Terminal 1 is for sale. Why don’t you play by the same rules everyone else does and make an offer on it?” Fish asked Williams pointedly.
Fish also raised concerns that the city was inviting litigation by undermining the Bureau of Environmental Services’ ongoing effort to find a buyer for the property. The city has been sued over improperly spending funds collected from water and sewer utility ratepayers.
Steve Novick, who is often the council’s swing vote, supported the proposal.
“I think it’s important to give Mr. Williams and the Housing Bureau a chance to see if we can expand our capacity to help homeless people with private money,” he said.