Portland Mayor Charlie Hales says he plans to ask the City Council to declare a state of emergency to address homelessness in Portland.
The mayor’s move comes a day after the Los Angeles City Council announced a similar plan, and promised to spend an additional $100 million on the homeless problem there.
In Portland, the mayor can declare an emergency in response to natural or human-made disasters that cause loss of life or suffering.
The law is usually used for fires or winter storms, but Hales said he will ask the council to vote to invoke it to help house the homeless, in particular, homeless women.
At a press conference Wednesday, Hales held up a map of the city.
“This is a map of where it’s legal and not to site a shelter in Portland.”
Just a few small squares on the map showed green zones where homeless shelters are clearly permitted.
Hales said emergency powers would allow him to waive those city zoning rules.
“We will look at every single piece of property the city of Portland owns where we might be able to shelter more people this winter.
“Why do this now?” Hales said. “Winter is coming.”
Portland’s mayor has the authority to declare a state of emergency unilaterally but he said he will ask the council to vote on the declaration in October. Hales said his ideal plan would have a new shelter built in just three months.
“I think it can happen by the first of the year,” he said.
But Hales didn’t have an answer to who would operate a new shelter, or pay for it.
Portland Housing Commissioner Dan Saltzman wasn’t immediately available to comment on the proposal. But staff in his office said he was generally supportive of it.
Down the hall, Commissioner Steve Novick said he had only just learned of the proposed emergency declaration. He said it seemed unlikely the city would solve homelessness in a few months.
“I think that we should take a look at whether to make permanent changes in the rules, rather than a temporary suspension of the rules that might wind end up lasting for a long time,” Novick said.
Council member Nick Fish, a longtime housing policy wonk, said he supported the mayor’s proposal to declare an emergency.
“By declaring an emergency we get to be more flexible, more focused, and bolder in our approach to solving the problem,” Fish said.
But Fish also said the mayor’s stated plan to build a new shelter didn’t go nearly far enough.
“Look, if all we do is suspend some building codes and put people in unsafe buildings, we haven’t done much,” he said. “That’s a short-term fix, and that’s not how we address an emergency.”
Fish said he is planning to introduce his own proposals, including a new housing investment fund paid for by the tax on short-term rentals like Airbnb.
It also comes just a few weeks after State Treasurer Ted Wheeler announced his campaign to run for mayor against Hales.
“We need a mayor that will address the major problems facing the city every year. Not just during an election year,” said a statement from Wheeler’s campaign.
Hales shot back that he’s not politicking.
“If I was seeking to be politically popular, trying to site more homeless shelters is not probably what I would pick,” Hales said.
Portland’s most recent count of homeless people in the city took place in January. It showed the number of homeless people hadn’t change in the past two years.