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Saltzman promises a “fresh set of eyes” at housing bureau

Portland Mayor Charlie Hales shocked City Hall watchers when he announced his bureau assignments in early June. With few exceptions, each commissioner walked away with a new portfolio of responsibilities. It shuffled the balance of power in City Hall, and gives each commissioner a lot to learn.

City Commissioner Dan Saltzman takes over the Portland Housing Bureau, which oversees the city’s efforts to end homelessness and provide affordable housing throughout the city. He assumes the rule on the heels of Commissioner Nick Fish, who won a Council seat in 2008 with the explicit intention of being the city’s housing commissioner.

Saltzman inherits Fish’s legacy, including reorganizing the city’s housing machinery and creating the Portland Housing Bureau; breaking ground on the Bud Clark Commons; expanding the city’s emergency winter shelter program, and trying, but failing, to negotiate flexible camping guidelines for homeless individuals who could not seek shelter.

Giving the Housing Bureau to Saltzman is not a decision out of left field: the council’s longest-serving member was a chief architect behind the creation of the Portland Children’s Levy, which pumps millions of dollars each year into domestic violence, children and education programs. He is also one of the region’s most vocal advocates for children’s issues and domestic violence prevention, issues he hopes to work on as the city’s new housing commissioner.

Amanda Waldroupe: What was your reaction when Mayor Hales made his bureau assignments and nothing was as people expected?

Dan Saltzman: I’m of the school of thought that it’s good to shake things up. I was surprised to the extent he mixed things up. There’s a learning curve, but with that comes a new zest, a fresh set of eyes looking at issues, asking questions, hopefully asking good questions. Everybody always thinks they’re asking a dumb question. There are no dumb questions.

A.W.: In terms of you taking a position and advocating for particular issues or policies, what kind of role will you take?

D.S.: There are issues that I bring to this that are priorities of mine. I’m very interested in more emergency shelters for women. I have a pretty long-standing interest in family shelter space and domestic violence. Do we need more shelter beds, or things like hotel vouchers? With a hotel voucher, you can bring an adult male child with you. In a shelter, most have rules about not having teen male children. Another one is what are we doing with kids aging out of foster care.

A.W.: What is it about the demographic of foster kids aging out of the system that concerns you so much?

D.S.: It’s a set of individuals that demand our attention. Many of them have suffered horrendously in foster care, have no sense of what’s up or down, right or wrong because they’ve lacked positive parental role models. I feel a special obligation to do something about that.

A.W.: How do you think your approach will be different from the previous housing commissioner, Nick Fish’s?

D.S.: I’m not sure I could tell you what my legacy will be. I can tell you these are the areas I’m always going to be passionate about.

A.W.: A couple weeks ago, the Housing Bureau released a point-in-time report showing a 10 percent increase in street homelessness. How well do you think the city’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness and its Housing First model is working?

D.S.: If you look at the numbers between the point-in-time reports in the last two years, you could probably say it’s not working as well. But I think a lot has been achieved since we passed the first plan. The whole evolution of the concept of services connected to housing … has come of age in the last 10 years (and) how we marshal resources that we already have at our disposal.

A.W.: The 10-Year Reset Plan recognizes the existence of various subpopulations in the Portland homeless population — people with disabilities, children, people experiencing domestic violence. Knowing that there are these different demographics of people, what do you think the Portland Housing Bureau can be doing differently?

D.S.: It does require, as the Reset Plan calls for, close collaboration between the city, the county and Home Forward. I’ll be quite blunt that the chronically single adult issue is an important issue, but it’s not as huge a priority for me as some of the other areas I just cited.

A.W.: Why?

D.S.: It’s important to provide people with opportunities to get off the street — like rent assistance and services connected to housing, but there’s a core population that none of that is ever going to touch.

A.W.: Do you think homelessness can be ended in Multnomah County?

D.S.: No. I don’t. I think there’s a lot we can accomplish. Services connected to housing, rent assistance, the Bud Clark Commons and services like that all have roles. Do I see that ultimately ending homelessness? No. I’d loved to be proven wrong.

A.W.: There’s a bill in the Legislature that would curb discrimination against people with Section 8 vouchers. What else do you think landlords and people in the real estate and the rental community can do to alleviate poverty and provide assistance to low income and potentially formerly homeless renters?

D.S.: First of all, I hope that bill passes. It will really open up a lot of opportunities for Section 8 renters that are currently just not available. Fair housing is a very important area — that there’s no discrimination based on gender, race, and economic circumstance. There’s a lot of action going on there. I would expect the multi-family rental industry, which to all indications they have been, a full partner in making sure that this is not tolerated. To the extent that there can be fewer barriers to getting into rental housing in terms of security deposits, credit history and things like that — on balance, that would be probably be a good thing. But I’m sure there’s a whole other side to that.

A.W.: Are you saying that you would like to see landlords not consider credit history?

D.S.: Not being in their shoes, I can understand how they would react to a statement like that. But there might be some happy median there.

A.W.: In the backdrop of what we’ve been talking about are the budgets for these various programs. The Housing Bureau is very reliant upon one-time funding and it’s struggled to find a stable revenue stream, one that can be more or less reliable in years going forward. Are you interested in seeking a stable funding source, and where do you think it can be found?

D.S.: I think we made a big step in the budget we’re about to adopt. We took a lot of one-time funded housing services and converted them to ongoing. That was a huge chunk, almost $9 million worth of one-time programs in our ongoing programs. But many of our one-time funded programs get funded with serial, one-time appropriations. The safety net and the issues around homelessness have always enjoyed that status.

A.W.: Mayor Hales has made a point of saying he wants to address panhandling in some way. Do you share his concerns about the issue?

D.S.: I don’t want to wade into the sidewalk management issues because I find it to be quite confusing, frankly. We get a lot of complaints from people about the environment downtown. We’ve always gotten those complaints, though. I’m not sure there are any answers out there.

A.W.: You seem to be saying that this issue is like beating a dead horse.

D.S.: That’s a good characterization. It is like beating a dead horse. I don’t think there’s going to be anything new under the sun that isn’t going to be challenged very vigorously by the Oregon Law Center or the ACLU. On the other hand, you’re going to have the business community try unsuccessfully to get something done in Salem that would have given cities more permissive authority. I don’t see anything happening to really change the status quo. I don’t want to take away from what Mayor Hales has up his sleeve, but that’s how I see the situation.

A.W.: A really memorable moment for me happened a couple years ago after the sit lie ordinance was declared unconstitutional. Then-mayor Sam Adams and Commissioner Fish went in front of the Portland Business Alliance (PBA) and basically told them to get over it. Is that pretty much your attitude?

D.S.: Yes. The PBA is obviously less focused on the legal side of things and the First Amendment side of things than they are on the complaints they get. They can’t accept that there’s nothing that can be done about it.

A.W.: There was an effort to create a program, modeled after one in Eugene, where homeless people would be allowed to camp in their cars, in parking lots of agreeing businesses and churches, but efforts to get it off the ground fizzled. Do you think it could work here?

D.S.: I thought it was a good idea. In practice, it hasn’t panned out. The church in Westmoreland had a very unfortunate set of circumstances. Given that it worked in Eugene, you would think that it would work here. Others in this building were disappointed that it seemed to unravel.

A.W.: Would you be willing to find other sites or negotiate a compromise to make it work?

D.S.: My position right now would be that if a faith-based organization, like a church or another group has an idea of how they want to do this and they approach us, that is what I would be looking for us. Approach us do their homework so they can go in with their eyes wide open.

A.W.: In the past, you have been fairly outspoken against the existence of Right 2 Dream Too. If they were in full compliance of code, would you support letting them stay there?

D.S.: We’re still being sued by Right To Dream Too, so I’m not supposed to comment on that. [Editor’s Note: The City of Portland has a policy that its employees, including city commissioners not comment on pending litigation]

A.W.: Northwest Pilot Project and other organizations have been charting the decline in availability of low-income and affordable housing over the last few decades. There are a variety of issues about costs of construction, the recession, making a project pencil out despite subsidies, but what do you think can be done to increase the stock again?

D.S.: We can play a big role there in either helping construction come on line but preserving existing buildings. The program to make sure that we acquire buildings with long-term Section 8 contracts has largely been successful under Commissioner Fish’s leadership. But there are going to be other opportunities.

A.W.: What opportunities are you thinking of?

D.S.: I’m thinking of opportunities to assist in renovation or the purchase of existing housing stock. I think we need to be opportunistic about stepping into purchase, and hopefully increase the availability of affordable housing.

A.W.: With the 30-percent tax increment set aside decreasing gradually, what other resources or funding streams would you like to see become available?

D.S.: TIF, while looking like it’s on a death spiral, there are circumstances that could change that outlook.

A.W.: Like what?

D.S.: There is the educational urban renewal area that has not reached its full potential yet. There could even be the desire of council to create an additional urban renewal area, or two. I couldn’t tell you where those would go at this point. But we’ve done it in the past.