Housing commissioner Nick Fish talks to SR in Seattle

Street Roots joined Commissioner Nick Fish this week in Seattle — along with an array of city and county representatives, the Portland Business Alliance, and non-profit leaders to look at resource development and best practices for housing and homeless services.

Yesterday the group met with homeless service providers, Seattle foundations and others to discuss ways to create new forms of revenue for affordable housing and homeless services in the Portland region.

Today, the group met with housing levy advocates, and city administrators for a two-hour session hosted by Key Bank in downtown before taking a tour of the Seattle Housing Authority. The meeting was off the record.

Before the day’s events, SR sat down to an early morning coffee with Fish.

Israel Bayer: Seattle so far?

Nick Fish: I have been impressed. The comprehensive view of delivering services and the housing first model, and what appears to be a fairly strong support for affordable housing in Seattle reminds us we’re not alone. It’s inspiring because it appears that both Portland and Seattle have a similar philosophy that guides the work. Of course, there are some differences here and there, but by and large the dedication to long-term strategies and the willingness to take some risks are there.

I.B.: The legislative session in Salem related to homelessness and housing?

N.F.: We don’t have a clear sense of the magnitude of cuts, and how they will affect our partners. The city is less dependent on state revenue, but because the city and the county are so closely aligned on human services — when the county takes a hit, the city feels the pressure to step up and help back fill some of those cuts. There’s no question the outcomes may leave big holes in our safety net.

I was down in Salem a couple of weeks ago testifying to renew our tax investment program, and make sure that we continue to have this tool at our disposal for housing. There’s also a team of people from the city pushing the housing agenda is Salem.

I.B.: What does the tax investment program look like?

N.F.: It allows us to give a developer a 10-year property tax break if they meet certain policy goals that include building housing units that are affordable. It comes with a wrinkle — we ask that the law be clarified to allow us to extend the abatement to the commercial portion of the building if it meets a clear public benefit. Both County Chair Jeff Cogen, and I testified about the program. An example of a mixed use development that would qualify in a place like the Lents neighborhood or East Portland is where a developer would also like to include a grocery store in what we call a food desert (where a grocery store doesn’t exists in the neighborhood). It’s the goal to extend the abatement to bring people both housing, and things like a grocery store to neighborhoods that have been traditionally under served. We’re cautiously optimistic.

The reality is we need as many tools in the toolbox as possible. We have to be able to use tax abatement, tax credits, and direct subsidy along with other tools to fund affordable housing. At the end of the day, the housing tax abatement doesn’t have a big impact on the state revenues, but does allow cities and counties to help create an incentive for housing.

I.B.: What about the Federal cuts we’ve been hearing about?

N.F.: Honestly, this concerns me the most. We are looking at potential cuts to the Community Development Block Grant program. It’s an important piece of the funding puzzle for housing. The dollars are reasonably flexible, and can be used for many different projects. Unfortunately, the President has proposed a cut to the program and the Republicans have come along and said let’s double those cuts.  We’re at wits ends trying to figure out what’s real, and what’s not. It’s been keeping me awake at night trying to figure it out. Think the Admiral Building, and the Martha Washington Building, it’s one of the most crucial tools we have for preserving affordable housing.

The Portland community, and advocates like yourself and the city are a part of national coalitions and other groups that are doing everything possible to move the housing agenda forward. We simply can’t balance our budgets on the backs of the poor. We’ll see how that shakes out in Washington, and in Salem. I’m extremely proud in Portland that we have wall-to-wall support for housing, but we can’t do it alone. We have to be on high alert and active.

I.B.: One of the themes we heard from foundations and advocates this week is that if the housing agenda locally, and around the country is to move forward we have to be working in collaboration with non-traditional allies. It’s something Street Roots has taken very seriously over the past two-years, and taken a hard look in the mirror and asked ourselves, how to we honestly build a movement — what’s your take on this?

N.F.: At one time I worked for Barney Frank — one of the biggest housing advocates of our time. When I was running for office he came out and spoke to a group of supporters on my behalf.

He said, two of his best allies in moving the affordable housing agenda forward were the home builders and the real estate industry.

There were some progressive housing folks in the room that looked as though they had just swallowed the cat. At the same time, the idea that the most powerful Democrat in Washington was working on housing issues had identified home builders and the real estate industry as real allies was very sobering for others.

The reality is to be successful on the housing front, locally and at the state level we need a big coalition. Part of this is about the confidence and maturity of a movement, and its willingness to build a big tent.

Bill Hobson said it yesterday. His biggest allies on the most controversial form of harm reduction and housing programs ended up being the business community, and law enforcement. We’ve heard this week that it doesn’t matter what people’s motivations are. For the police, it may be that they are stretched thin and don’t have the capacity to respond to calls surrounding homelessness. For the business community, maybe they didn’t feel like it was productive for the retail community to have people sleeping on the streets in front of their businesses. I honestly don’t care how you get to our movement — I just need you at the table helping. We have spent too much time in the past fighting with potential allies instead of looking for common ground, and agreeing to disagree. To drive housing policy locally, and in Oregon, we have to build a bigger tent.

I.B.: What are we getting right on housing front?

N.F.: We have identified long-term cost effective strategies to end people’s homelessness. That means not going after quick fixes and expanding our shelter capacity. Politically, that was a difficult fight at one-time, but it is the right approach. Half way into our 10-year plan — we know we have a model that works.

We have strong political support for our work. We are a collaborative community working with foundations, non-profits, the private sector and government. We can always do it better though.

The challenges are that we need to be more organized, and we need develop more resources. We have to guard against complacency and frankly, we have to hit the refresh button and question assumptions. We always have to be asking how we can do it better. The economy has thrown us for a loop, and there’s no question that some of our non-profit community partners are fragile, and it’s been brutal on some of our best providers.

What’s been humbling for me is that you can’t take for granted that we’ve made our case around homelessness and housing with the public, and that the public is always going to be with you.

We’re halfway through a 10-year plan to end homelessness, and the 30-percent set aside for Urban Renewal dollars is up for reconsideration. Like I said before, we have to be on high alert, active and able to state our case. We know we’re all collectively doing good work. We just have to continue to build that big tent and move forward.

— Israel Bayer

Look for a full story in the March 18 edition of Street Roots.

One response to “Housing commissioner Nick Fish talks to SR in Seattle

  1. I would like to see if there is any volunteer work that I could help with.

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