Action-Based Ideas That Treat Affordable Housing and Houselessness Like the Crisis It Is
“During the Great Recession, Sam made millions in new City investments to help people stay in their homes. He provided more assistance to the unemployed and shelter for the houseless. He has a smart plan again that can help to address houselessness and to build more affordable housing.”
— Doreen Binder, Ed McNamara, Rich Rodgers, Steve Rudman - Portland affordable housing advocates
Dear Neighbors, Housing and houselessness were crises before COVID-19 hit. Now they're getting even worse.
We are in an economic crisis unprecedented in our lifetimes. We need bold, decisive and effective action commensurate with the scale of the problem.
We need to transform our approach to addressing these challenges. You can read the full text about my ideas for affordable housing and houselessness here.
Yes, as you have come to expect from me, it's not just sound bite, it is detailed and nerdy. Why? Portland wants real change, actual improvement. This issue is very complex and it's solutions deserve serious thought.
I want to highlight two elements of my plan:
We should construct better housing for the houseless, faster and cheaper. To do this, we’d build more sustainable clustered villages of small homes, with shared kitchens and bathrooms, on land the city already owns. We’d mobilize Portland volunteers to build 500 units in six months, then more.
I support Measure 26-210, you should too. Local governments should loan itself money if the May 19th housing measure passes. We can’t afford to wait months and months for tax money to come in to address this crisis. This is a crisis, and thousands of people could be at risk of loosing their homes. Keep people in their homes now with housing vouchers, not wait for them to become homeless.
About the small home clustered village concept, I am focusing on it now because as the virus abates, we have a rare opportunity to mobilize Portland available volunteers to help. The planning, research and groundwork needs to start happening now. (My many thanks to the over 1,500 people who helped shape these ideas by answering my February survey).
This is how we do it:
Lower hard construction costs
Right now, the city spends an estimated average of $310,000 to build one unit of subsidized housing. That’s too much. We don’t have enough money or time to house enough people at that rate. We can do better.
We can lower these costs by:
Building on land the city already owns or has been offered at low- or no-cost: Land is expensive, but Portland already owns a lot, and this is an emergency. Many cities already do this.
Constructing shared facilities: Kitchens and bathrooms are the most expensive rooms in a new home. Residents share them. Sharing these facilities saves money. These models exist and they work.
Clustering homes: Construction is less expensive when multiple units are built near each other, all at once. In addition, social services are cheaper to administer when the people who need them aren’t scattered about the city in tents. Cities like Seattle have embraced the village approach, research shows it dramatically lowered costs.
Cutting red tape: Waive zoning and inspection fees and fast-track permitting.
Getting support: Projects to help the houseless have been controversial. But most recent projects in the Pearl District and Kenton Neighborhood have operated without many problems. Their good neighbor agreements have been successful. Finding the right location is key, like near transit. Working transparently and directly with neighborhoods and housing advocates, we can accelerate decision-making so it takes weeks, not months, to identify sites. After they are built, my team and I would continue to monitor everything closely, respond rapidly, and learn any lessons that need to be learned.
"I am a proponent of tiny house villages, yes other neighborhoods should be doing it. The key to its success is that neighborhoods pitch it and partner with a housing organization, with the city and other groups that can help with the project." Terrance Moses, Kenton neighborhood
“We worked closely with those planning the houselessness navigation center, we developed a good neighborhood agreement. It’s been up and running for 6 months, withvirtually no negative impact on the neighborhood.” Stan Penkin, Pearl neighborhood
Empower Portland volunteers to help
Portlanders understand that housing and houselessness is a crisis. Everywhere I go, people want to do something about it. They are ready to help. They want us to do better and they want these vexing problems solved in a way that is good for everyone.
Like a scaled-up version of Habitat for Humanity, we would ask Portlanders to help, as they have done in other crises--just as we came together in response to extreme flooding in the 1990s, when hundreds of volunteers famously saved downtown by building a seawall out of plywood and sandbags along the Willamette.
To encourage volunteers, we would:
Ask employers to give workers flex time or time off. Many Portland businesses want to address this crisis but don’t have an avenue to do much. Now they would. Large corporations could even adopt a village.
Enlist help from experts and non-experts alike. Portland has many experts in design, architecture, engineering and more. We would ask for their free help. We also have untold numbers of Portlanders who can cut plywood and hammer a nail or use a drill. Those that are houseless want to help. People want to help. They need to be given a way to do it.
Offer Free transit. I would ask TriMet to provide free transit passes or shuttles to village construction sites.
Free food. We would ask restaurants to donate leftover food to help feed volunteers. We can set up food programs in concert with local cooks, farmers and existing food programs, modeled on amazing efforts like the World Central Kitchen.
Supervision of volunteers could be provided by both active and retired skilled tradeswomen and men, and include apprenticeship trainees. Many workers in the trades want to pass on their skills or upgrade their certifications; many educators and students are looking for projects that will give them hands-on experience.
Prioritize homes to those who are chronically houseless
Save us money to provide homes. A person who is chronically houseless can cost the average taxpayer $35,578 per year
Be more fair. People who are chronically homeless also tend to be members of communities that disproportionately face discrimination. We will include as full partners culturally-specific organizations whose mission it is to help people of color, at the front end and throughout this effort.
Be more effective. When you move people into supportive housing first, like small house villages. and then give them help, it works better than trying to help them first and then providing them with housing.
Portland has roughly 2000 people who are chronically houseless. Some are families or couples, and we can assume we might be missing some people, so I am proposing a fast, effective solution commensurate with the scale of the need by constructing about 2,000 units at very low cost and on a quick timeline.
To pay for it Portland should:
On the City Council I would be the affordable housing Fundraiser-in-Chief once elected. I would ask corporations, foundations and wealthy donors to contribute to each village for construction.
Tap into the city’s unspent housing bond. Tap Portland’s allocation of the region’s unspent housing bond. Use a modest portion of Portland’s allocation of yet-to-be spent Metro Housing Bond funds.
Portland Clean Clean Energy (PCEF) funding. Community-based organizations can apply to help pay for each village’s solar energy array, the most energy-efficient heating and cooling options, worker installation training for minorities and women.
A Proven Model
As someone who works professionally as a good governance consultant, traveling the world studying cities and what they are doing to address housing and houselessness, I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t. This model is based on what the evidence shows work.
Some aspects of this model have even been tried, with success, locally here in Portland. The Kenton Women’s Village is an example of a clustered village. Embraced by the Kenton neighborhood association, the village agreed to operate under a successful Good Neighbor Partnership Agreement. Other village models in Portland include R2D2 too, Artfarm, and Dignity Village. I will work closely with the Village Coalition and other on-the-ground teams to build on what they know, and empower them to lead the way.
You can help improve these ideas by giving me feedback at email@example.com!
Again, my full set of plans are available here. As always, my initial proposals are the beginning of a discussion.