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Candidates talk on housing and human services

Mayoral and City Council candidates Charlie Hales, Jefferson Smith, Amanda Fritz and Mary Nolan answer questions earlier this month at a housing and homelessness forum put on by Oregon On, Street Roots, 211info, JOIN and the Community Alliance of Tenants. The forum co-sponsored by Portland Community College drew around 150 people.

Below are three questions the organizations asked the candidates prior to the forum.

1. In your first term, what will your top priority be with respect to housing and how will you accomplish this?

Charlie Hales: I will continue the Council’s affirmation of the 30% housing set-aside from urban renewal districts. Since 2006, this mechanism has generated more than $152 million in direct investment to affordable housing, and it’s led to funding for successes like the Bud Clark Commons, Block 49 veterans housing and others.

Additionally, I will oversee implementation of Commissioner Fish’s budget note from this past year’s budget, converting one-time housing general fund dollars into ongoing dollars over the next two years. Our residents should feel confident in having choices in housing, and I will work to provide funding to allow for those choices.

Jefferson Smith: Far too many people in our city struggle to find a decent place to live. Safe, decent and stable housing is a cornerstone of a healthy society, yet close to 5,000 people experience homelessness in Portland, while many more are displaced from their neighborhoods. We can do something about that.

My top priority will be to work to establish a significant permanent source of funding for housing, like a housing bond. We can provide thousands of construction jobs, and make safe, decent housing available for seniors, people on disability and other low-income people. It won’t be easy, and we’ll have to make a case to the voters, but I think it’s a campaign we can win.

Amanda Fritz: My top priority in my second term will be providing more coordination of services for vulnerable people, particularly Portlanders struggling with mental illnesses, drug and alcohol addictions, and houselessness. Advocates for affordable housing know what to expect from me after one term on the City Council.

I will continue to support Commissioner Fish and Commissioner Deborah Kafoury at Multnomah County as they lead crucial work on the full range of housing needs.

My areas of special expertise are planning and zoning, and mental health care service coordination.  I helped update the tax abatement program and the maps of eligible areas where affordable housing incentives are needed.  I worked in psychiatry at OHSU for 22 years, and I have been improving the 9-1-1 dispatch system in my first term.

The system has significant gaps, which the city is now responsible for fixing due to the Department of Justice mandate regarding unconstitutional actions by Portland police officers against people experiencing mental illness. If re-elected, I will continue pushing to create a seamless system of services between the city, county, Home Forward, non-profits, and agencies including Portland Police, Portland Fire & Rescue and mental health care providers.

Mary Nolan: My top priority is access to safe, appropriate and affordable housing at all income levels with an emphasis on preserving existing housing. This includes efforts to prevent any further foreclosures and give homeowners an opportunity to protect their housing and the investment they have made in their homes.

The recession has been hard on Portland families, but the city can assure that civil rights of homeowners are protected.

Individually as a city commissioner I will use my relationships with the lending community to make sure they respect the human needs for housing and the authentic efforts of homeowners to meet their obligations and make sure families are not forced out onto the street. This also includes supporting the Portland Housing Bureau in participating with non-profits, lenders and the state.

2. What are the revenue and policy priorities that you will work for at the state and federal levels to increase access to affordable housing and human services? 

Charlie Hales:  At the state level the city will work to support and advocate for Representative Kotek’s Housing Choice Act of 2013. Ending Section 8 voucher discrimination would work to create more housing choices for Portland residents. But that’s only part of the battle, without funding, affordable housing remains mythical. I will direct the city government relations team to advocate for more funding from the legislature so that we can provide more choices for more Portlanders.   I will also work with our congressional delegation to provide tax abatements to those whose houses have been overvalued on their tax bills, but undervalued by the downturn in the housing market.

Jefferson Smith: I’ll start with a holistic approach. Take inventory of the resources going to homelessness and housing, from all major sources. Get a good sense of where services and housing are provided. Envision the ideal set of services and structures with an eye to those resources. Then work with the housing community to focus the resources toward that vision, working for ever better alignment with the county, and not taking federal limitations on dedicated funding as concrete givens (we can work with our Congressional delegation on waivers).

I’ll push to overturn the ban on inclusionary zoning, a practice that allows cities to require developers to include affordable units. The developers pushed for a statewide ban, and Oregon is one of only two states that prohibit local governments from creating inclusionary zoning practices. We need better ways to allow for affordable housing improvements without being limited to tax credits or statewide subsidies that we can’t afford.

We should also look regionally. Metro developed a regional housing strategy a decade ago, but Portland carries much of the weight. With leadership we will bring in partners for regional solutions.

Amanda Fritz:  We need more money from the federal and state governments.  I am open to considering all viable options.  In my first term, I established a regular annual process where community members participate in setting the city’s federal and state legislative priorities.  Affordable housing advocates attended the two community input sessions this summer, and gave many great suggestions for improvements.  I will continue to coordinate joint lobbying on shared priorities when re-elected.

Mary Nolan:  In the legislature, both as co-chair of the Budget Committee and as House majority leader, I prioritized both direct services from Oregon Housing and Community Services and funding for preserving and expanding affordable housing options.

My working relationships with key state leaders have been built up and deepened over the last 12 years. I have strong working relationships with six of our seven congressional delegates, including having worked directly on affordable housing and social services with three of them as colleagues in the legislature. I will use those relationships to help provide ongoing funding.

To address human services, I was a lead negotiator for expanding funding for the Healthy Kids program, expanded funding to provide assisted living and foster care services for senior and disabled Oregonians, and for measures that preserved human services during the deepest part of the recession.

I am also opposing Measure 79 that would embed in the constitution the prohibition of real estate transfer taxes because I feel local communities should be able to access that revenue source and others to protect their local affordable housing program.

3. What policies would you pursue so that there is sufficient affordable housing and employment opportunities in order for low-income families to continue to live in the city of Portland?

Charlie Hales:  I’m running for mayor because I want to make Portland an affordable place to live for all Portlanders in every neighborhood.

That includes working to ensure more affordable housing, like I helped create in the Development Agreements with the Pearl District and the South Waterfront neighborhood, requiring at least 25% of housing to be affordable housing.

But that also includes ensuring that people have access to good family-wage jobs, that our transit system is affordable, that our streets are paved, that our water and sewer rates are lower, and that every child has access to a quality education at a great public school.

As mayor I will focus on the basics so that the opportunity that’s now available to some is shared by all Portlanders, regardless of who they are or in what part of town they live.

Jefferson Smith:  First, keep the 30% set aside in place, and make it a floor, not a ceiling. I’m open to the current policy of averaging the spending across districts, as it helps us to avoid adding to the growing imbalance between East Portland and inner Portland neighborhoods. There should be flexibility in housing types. We should work to ensure needed services and amenities are in place so that neighborhoods are healthy.

New forms of housing need not be scary. We are in the midst of structural changes in our economy, and it makes sense to look at new housing types, like courtyard-style family housing, or dormitory-style, with shared amenities like kitchens and bathrooms.

When it comes to publicly invested money, we should do more to ensure that local contractors, especially women- and minority-owned businesses, get a healthy share of the work. We also need a workforce that better reflects Portland’s diversity.

And I wouldn’t support getting rid of systems development charges. The fees developers pay for basic services like sewers, streets, and parks.

Amanda Fritz:  Homeownership is one of the best ways to keep families in Portland living in stable neighborhoods rather than being displaced to outer suburbs.

I will continue to support General Fund assistance for homeownership programs.

Well-paying jobs are necessary for both mortgage and rental payments.

I will continue to support job training, college scholarships, and small business development programs.

We need to promote a wide range of job choices, for entrepreneurs and expansion of existing businesses, for those wanting to pursue higher education, and for folks who prefer more technical/hands-on work.

Language translation services are often crucial to publicize good jobs and encourage everyone to apply. The City can help by publicizing opportunities, with translation into multiple languages.

I will continue to support and promote the Office of Neighborhood Involvement’s Diverse Civic Leadership program. In my second term, I will coordinate an alumni organization for graduates of DCL trainings, further engaging diverse communities in sharing the riches of our city.

Mary Nolan:  It’s important that we keep Portland welcoming and affordable for a diverse and culturally rich population.

To do that I’ve been visiting with dozens of community leaders in the affordable housing movement as well as scores of business managers to talk about what would be most helpful to meet this objective.

The first priority I hear is regulatory certainty, so they know the rules and whether their project will meet standards before they invest money.

Second is prompt responses from the city for land-use changes, permit requests and licensing applications.

Third is a fee structure that allows affordable housing projects to stay affordable.

Finally, I’ll bring together competing interests to reach common ground, prioritize the most promising opportunities and implement them as quickly as possible.

Top photo by Jayme Elsevier.