Man of the hour — Nick Fish

In the cavernous meeting hall of the Governor Hotel, as 200 people dined at the REACH Community Development Corporation’s annual donor luncheon, Nick Fish was seated off in a corner at the table with members of the newly created Portland Housing Bureau. But when the lights dimmed, Fish was front and center for the show. In fact, at just a few feet away, no one was closer to the giant screen that projected the stark realities of Portland’s housing and homeless crisis.

The grim barrage reflected on his face: 1 in 2 Oregonians live on incomes 200 percent below the federal poverty line for a family of four – $42,400

1 in 4 Oregonians spend more than 50 percent of their income on rent.

64 percent of Portland residents living in poverty work full time.

41 percent of Portlanders living in poverty were single mothers

20,000 new affordable housing units are needed in Portland over the next 7 years.

Nick Fish was the man Portland elected to help change all this, or at least help to correct the economic inequality that, over the course of the past decade, has priced much of Portland’s housing beyond a commoner’s reach, and made it the hub of a state that recently led the nation, per capita, for homelessness, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

This was the job he wanted — the job he fought for — several times since 2002, when he first ran for City Council. After two unsuccessful runs, he succeeded in the special election of 2008, filling the position left vacant in June of that year by Erik Sten’s resignation. As Portland’s first commissioner to have combined control over housing and parks, Fish oversees two bureaus that impact nearly every resident of the city, particularly its most vulnerable populations as they interface with business, neighborhood and development concerns.

But just as he got his ticket to the ball, the carriage turned to a pumpkin. Not only did the economy nosedive into the biggest recession in recent history, evaporating local resources and nationwide housing investments, but City Hall soon erupted in a salacious scandal involving Mayor Sam Adams and a teenage intern.

Meanwhile, quietly across the city, people were losing their jobs and their homes, foreclosures hit a staggering pace, and homelessness jumped 37 percent across the state over the previous year.

“Who would have thought, a year and a half ago, after City Council got through dividing up a surplus, that not only would we be in the worst economic downturn of our lifetime, but that the engine room — the precipitating effect of this recession — was a collapse in the housing market. So not only am I in charge of housing, but housing is essentially the place with the three-alarm fire, and I’m in charge of leading a city/county collaborative effort to try and address this unfolding humanitarian crisis.”

“Welcome to City Hall,” he says, with a fitting amount of sarcasm.

It was a likely destination. Public service is a presumed birthright of the Fish family, dating back — at least on U.S. soil — to the Revolutionary War and spanning four generations of U.S congressmen from New York – all named Hamilton Fish. His grandfather was an ultra-conservative Republican who opposed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. His father was a more moderate Republican congressman who served from 1968 to 1994, during which his son Nick, fresh from Harvard in the early 1980s, became a legislative aide in the anything-but-conservative office of Democrat Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts.

Fish’s father, who died in 1996, (his mother died when he was a child) left an enduring legacy in his own right, leading the passage of fair-housing protections for families and people with disabilities. But working at sometimes opposing ends of the political spectrum made for a few uneasy situations between father and son, says Fish’s former boss and mentor.

“He was left of his father, who was somewhat moderate,” Barney Frank said. “I was impressed with how respectfully he disagreed with his father. His father was a good man. Nick was interested not to embarrass his father, and that was a potentially difficult situation.”

It was Frank — who came out to Portland to campaign for Fish during his 2008 run — from whom Fish says he learned one of the most important lessons for a public servant: the balance between idealism and pragmatism.

“People who think they are opposites are screwed up,” Frank says. “You can start with an idealistic approach, but if you are not committed to implement your ideals, all they do is make you feel good.  Ideals that are totally unrealized don’t help anybody.”

At a time when husbands following their wives’ careers was less fashionable, Fish left his legal business in New York and moved to Portland in 1996 after his wife, Patricia Schechter, took a position teaching history at Portland State University (The two have a 16-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son). In Portland, Fish resumed his work as a civil rights and labor attorney and even hosted a local public-affairs show on Channel 30. He also immersed himself in the city’s public and supportive housing world by joining the board of the Housing Authority of Portland.

Fish’s campaign history has been well chronicled in a city that watched him run three times for City Council. He lost in 2002 to Randy Leonard, and then again in 2004 against Sam Adams in a race he was presumed to win after a victory in the primaries – an unforgivable error in the eyes of donors, Fish says. Personally, financially and for his family, the race had “not been very productive,” he says. “They were brutal. I saw the best and the worst of the process, to say the least.”

Fish was a candidate who unwittingly aligned the advocacy community — skeptical of his ambition and business backing — opposite the business community — which sought to move away from Erik Sten’s liberal shop that consistently supported Fish’s opponent. He was the candidate who some thought wore the suit perfectly and others thought wore it too well.

“(Erik Sten) has had a candidate in three of my races. I get that,” Fish says. “I’m now the housing guy, and over the cycle of three races, he had someone else he wanted to put either into government or as his successor. That’s not the most ideal situation for someone who wants to follow in Gretchen (Kafoury, a former city commissioner) and Erik’s footsteps. But it’s fair game. When you’re a public person, people get to question your motives. They get to question and assess who you are. They get to be critics, and that’s a wonderful thing. I think, though, that where people are begrudgingly coming around is they’re seeing a body of work that’s very serious. And we’ve done some things that I think people didn’t think were going to happen, and I’d rather be judged on that than whether someone wants to put me on a couch and psychoanalyze me.”

Unlike Sten, Fish is no media darling, nor does he aspire to be, and that’s in part a product of his 20-plus years as an attorney emphasizing discretion and keeping clients out of the spotlight. (His pivotal case came in representing an African-American health care worker fired in retaliation for opposing unlawful HIV discrimination. He won the case, which he says taught him that “progress in civil rights is made through constant struggle.”)

And then there was the media circus around the mayor’s scandal that enveloped City Hall from the start of the year. The environment became corrosive, he says.

“I have some friends in the media who say, ‘Nick, you seem more controlled.’ And actually that’s true. I have become very alarmed about our inability to have a civil discussion about just about anything. … There’s a deep distrust of government, people often feel very powerless. There is a tendency of people to vent anonymously. That is what blogging has brought us; anonymous — not always very constructive — commentary.

“And I have made a conscious decision that I don’t want to fuel that. And I think that I am more measured, more disciplined, but my general view is, unless it moves the ball on something I care about, I’m not going to be the commentator on the sidelines adding fuel to the fire. As a lawyer, yes, I’ve had a lot of training to discipline myself, because I think my natural tendency is to be less careful. To the extent that some would think that being thoughtful and judicious in what you do somehow appears calculating, if there are people who believe that, my guess is they’ve been skeptical about me for other reasons, and that’s icing on the cake.”

Regardless of any reticence he may have with the press, Fish has, with a much lower profile, pushed for greater transparency in city government. He supported the first-ever audit of how the city uses tax abatements (which revealed a lack of oversight in several cases), and initiated the first-ever annual reporting on limited tax exemption programs, in addition to revamping and detailing the city’s annual reports on how urban renewal districts are spending the 30 percent set-aside for affordable housing. Fellow City Commissioner Amanda Fritz says she got to know Fish during the 2008 primary campaign and was impressed with his knowledge and passion about Portland issues.

“There have been a few times I’ve disagreed and hoped he’d vote differently,” Fritz said. “But Commissioner Fish does his research of the issues to make well-reasoned decisions from his point of view.”

Given the city’s economic straits, the 2009 budget process was foreseen by those at City Hall as an unavoidable bloodbath. Bureaus were told to say goodbye to one-time funding in addition to cutting 5 percent out of their budget. About 25 percent of the housing budget – for the city’s most vulnerable families and children, shelters, rent assistance and more – was one-time money, renewed year after year but never secured. The 10-year plan, the template for the city’s homeless and housing initiatives, was unsustainable.

“What changed when Erik left was that for a number of years, this body was governed by a group of three people who had three votes to do whatever they wanted. Adams, Leonard and Sten in fact wrote the last two budgets. They actually took that responsibility away from Mayor (Tom) Potter. And when you have additional money — there was a surplus — and when you have three people running something, there was naturally a level of deference. People deferred to Erik on housing.

“I had the great joy of coming in and all of sudden there’s no surplus, there’s a deficit. There’s a completely new dynamic on the council, and the budget note said, ‘Prove to us why we should continue to invest in the housing bureau’.”

The planned cuts would have been the end of the housing bureau as the city knew it, Fish says.

“It was the death knell for the 10-year plan to end homelessness and it would have been devastating at a time when the need was going to balloon.”

Instead, the freshman councilman, with the help of former U.S. Senate candidate Steve Novick and others (bolstered by a community-driven campaign led by Oregon On, Street Roots and other advocates) drafted a financial blueprint that compelled City Council to not only convert one-time money into ongoing funds for the bureau, but also to secure a 30 percent increase on its base budget. Fish says it was the first time that the council was ever presented a document that laid out in clear, in data and in narrative, how Portland funds housing.

“I think the reason we succeeded was that the council concluded ultimately that we were in this together, and they had confidence in the data presented. And that, I think, was a sea change,” Fish says.

Fish calls it a story “of how the housing community came together and supported a rookie commissioner and overachieved during the worst economy of our lifetime.”

Last year at this time, Fish began work on a campaign promise to streamline the city’s housing development engine, creating the Portland Housing Bureau out of the combined housing arms of the Portland Development Commission and the Bureau of Housing and Community Development. Margaret Van Vliet was named director. This bureau houses the city’s arsenal for addressing homelessness and the shortage of affordable housing, including the city’s 10-year plan to end homelessness and the 30 percent set-aside collected through tax increment financing. It also draws funding from the Housing Opportunity Bond of 2006, and the newly created statewide document recording fee that dedicates funding toward affordable housing.

Over the next five years, the Portland Housing Bureau plans to spend $300 million for housing.

The bureau has four major projects in the works; three low-income housing complexes and the Resource Access Center for homeless and housing services. Over the course of the next 18 months, these projects will add 500 units of housing to the city’s inventory. The city also has a strategy to preserve 11 expiring-use properties in the downtown corridor for affordable housing. But the market for developing affordable housing remains depressed, with tax credits – the single major funding source for affordable housing projects – reduced to a fraction of their value, and lenders reluctant to bankroll new projects.

“The entire financing system for housing generally, and especially affordable housing, collapsed, and we’ve cobbled together a series of developments for housing at a time when no one else is able to build housing.”

The creation of the Portland Housing Bureau was the first priority in streamlining the region’s housing services. Fish is now working with County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury on breaking down the silos between county and city homeless programs.

“That’s the next Berlin Wall,” Fish says. “They’ve got families and children. We’ve got adults. And the public couldn’t care less. We are going to reconstitute the service continuum, city and county, into one continuous service.”

If the idealist in Fish takes a personal responsibility to lead the charge to end homelessness, it is the pragmatist in Fish that admits that for all the work in progress, the notion of ending homelessness any time soon is misleading.

“If the economy continues in this way, it’s going to make it even harder, because for all of our positive work, we keep seeing an increase in the number of people needing our services,” Fish said. “I think we probably are misleading people if we say that we will be ending homelessness any time soon. We’ll make a helluva dent. And we will build the infrastructure to provide a decent place to live and services. … We’re not going to end homelessness in my tenure.”

Looming before all of these efforts is the so-called TIF cliff – the point where revenues from the tax increment financing structure, and its 30 percent dedicated for affordable housing, take a dive.

“In about four years, the revenue source from the 30 percent begins to decline precipitously. By the fifth year, it is substantially contracted. Which means some money for four years, but there’s going to be a game changer in about five. It’s built into projections, and it’s got the whole community nervous.”

There are rumblings of putting a housing levy or a bond measure on the 2010 ballot, but Fish says there are limitations to either one generating real resources under the state’s current tax structure. He says the Portland Housing Bureau will be convening a group in 2010 to review all housing revenue options ahead.

In the meantime, simply preserving that 30 percent for housing has become a challenge of its own. The set-aside — 30 percent of funds collected from tax increments in the city’s nine urban renewal districts — has produced a revenue stream coveted as much for low-income housing (for which it was intended), as for higher priced developments and even a baseball stadium (for which it was not).

“I found it somewhat alarming that in the middle of a debate about baseball and soccer, to which I was quite indifferent, someone suggested that we take all the money out of the Lents Urban Renewal District — every penny for housing, plus all the money for economic development and infrastructure — and put it into a baseball stadium. And I think there might have been three votes on council to do that. And worse, it was suggested that the housing dollars would be placed on a credit card in a district to be formed in the future, to make up for the lost money. To me, if that had happened, we might as well write the obituary for 30 percent set aside. Because if you can do that, than to me, it is essentially an accounting gimmick.”

There are some communities in this city that would like it to change the mix on how we spend the dollars, but the city has to do a better job of telling its story, he says.

“Partly, it’s the use of the term of affordable housing, which has now become meaningless. We have to go to people and say forget about the rhetoric and the language, forget about the ideological wars. Who do we want to house in this community? If you put it in terms of who and the need, it’s an easier sell. But that’s going to be my responsibility. To defend the 30 percent set-aside. To provide accountability in terms of how the dollars are being spend, and ultimately to find an additional source of revenue in about four years.”

On a typical night in Portland, about 1,600 people sleep outdoors for lack of housing and shelter. Five years into the 10-year plan, there are more people on the streets of Portland than when the plan was launched, according to the latest city auditor’s performance report. By the end of 2008, the numbers were up 33 percent. At the end of 2008, the city conducted a vulnerability survey of people experiencing homelessness. The results showed that more than one-third of those surveyed had a combination of psychiatric issues, substance abuse and a chronic medical condition, placing them at a high likelihood of death if they remained on the streets.

Which is why some advocates are clamoring for more shelter space, and subsequently butting heads against others who want funding to stay invested in the more long-term, permanent supportive housing. There is also a faction, from on and off the streets, that wants the city to ease its anti-camping laws to allow more accessible and safer alternatives for people to survive when shelters are full. The city’s camping ordinance triggered a lawsuit challenging the city’s right to deny people shelter when city-sponsored shelter is full. Although Fish says he couldn’t comment on the specifics of negotiations surrounding the lawsuit, he did say he expected to unveil a new plan within a month, one developed with a group of advocates and housing bureau representatives.

“We don’t have adequate housing – that includes permanent units of housing plus shelter,” Fish says. “At the same time, we have almost 2,000 people sleeping outside, and we’re enforcing a law that says you can’t sleep outside. So, there is an inherent contradiction here, and it’s at the heart of the lawsuit going on with the city. And one of the theories advanced in the lawsuit is that under certain provisions of our constitution, you can’t enforce a prohibition against status. If you don’t have a place to sleep and you can’t camp, then you’re really saying you can’t ‘be’.”

Among the recommendations are changes in the law to allow a limited amount of camping at church sites, which has been tried in Eugene and elsewhere, and allowing people use of a tarp or a tent. Last winter, the city implemented a comprehensive emergency shelter and warming center plan to provide shelter for all those sleeping out in the case of extreme weather. Along with police, staff, outreach workers and volunteers, Fish was hands on during the December storm, helping facilitate the emergency response and get people into shelter.

“I understand that every dollar spent on shelter is diverted from permanent solutions. But I also understand that our community will not tolerate leaving people with no choice but to sleep on the streets. So we are going to continue to find humane and pragmatic solutions to these problems. And I recognize that around camping, no matter what I recommend, I can’t win this discussion. That no matter what I propose will be inadequate for the advocates and activists and will be outrageous and considered beyond the pale to some of the critics. And so be it, maybe that means I’ve found the sweet spot. But we’re going to try to get out in front of this issue and ultimately, on my watch, I don’t want anyone at risk of dying during inclement weather. And we’re going to have to adapt. I think the times require us to rethink some of our assumptions.”

On Nov. 20, Fish, Deborah Kafoury, Mayor Adams and others broke ground on the Resource Access Center, fulfilling a project that began conceptually under Erik Sten and the 10-year plan before getting mired in lawsuits about funding streams and site locations. The RAC, as it’s known, will provide a day center site with counseling, storage space, showers and voicemail boxes for people experiencing homelessness. Its housing levels will accommodate as many as 90 homeless men for shelter along with 130 permanent affordable housing units. It is a LEED platinum project, the highest “green” standard, and is expected to be completed in early 2011.

In the audience that groundbreaking day were businessmen, civic leaders, politicians, advocates and people who one day will use the RAC for their own needs. And while there was more than enough back-patting for everyone under that rain-soaked tent, the attention was focused on Fish.

He says he is the most fulfilled he’s ever been in his professional life. His wife says the job has made him more patient, and more optimistic.

“Am I satisfied? No,” Fish says. “The demand keeps growing and the supply doesn’t. And we don’t have any money. I can’t print it. So I’m not satisfied. And the day I’m satisfied, I should go back to practicing law.”

By Joanne Zuhl, Staff Writer

Photos by Ken Hawkins

5 responses to “Man of the hour — Nick Fish

  1. thanks for the in-depth reporting and detail

  2. Excellent report, insights into the problem along with a bio on someone who wants a solution.

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  4. Pingback: Street Roots joins housing group on a two-day peer learning trip to Seattle | For those who can’t afford free speech

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