Building a bigger tent with Nick Fish

By Israel Bayer, Staff Writer

Earlier this month, Street Roots joined Portland Housing Commissioner Nick Fish on a two-day trip with city and county representatives, the Portland Business Alliance, the Enterprise Foundation and non-profit leaders to look at resource development and best practices for housing and homeless services in Seattle.

As the commissioner in charge of both 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.

Under Fish, the Portland Housing Bureau has undergone enormous changes in the past two years, including a merger of the Bureau of Housing and Community Development and a segment of the Portland Development Commission — with the idea of centralizing and streamlining services for affordable housing projects and homeless services.

The agency also created a new strategic plan with citywide stakeholders and has made a concerted effort to change the way the bureau communicates with the broader public and has even hired a public relations manager.

The bureau recently submitted its budget request for the fiscal year beginning July 1. While the bureau has consolidated its resources to deliver on a number of big projects in the past two years, including the development of veterans housing in South Waterfront, the building of the new Resource Access Center, and myriad other smaller projects — the bureau is projecting a revenue decline this year of about $16 million, mostly due to the decline in tax increment finance funds due to the slowing of the economy.

Also missing in this year’s budget are one-time stimulus funds provided by the federal government that provided important rent assistance dollars for the 10-year plan to end homelessness. Another concern is that federal homeless dollars in the form of Community Development Block Grants will be cut to Portland, which could mean drastic cuts for some of Portland’s most crucial homeless services providers. (See page 4 for a breakdown of proposed federal cuts and the SR editorial on the issue on page 15)

The projected decline in revenue and uncertainty on the federal front has forced the housing bureau to quietly cut its staff. Come this July, the bureau will have laid off 17 employees over the past two years.

Despite the lagging economy and projected revenue declines, Fish and his housing team seem upbeat and aggressive — knowing that they can’t rest on the laurels of past success and realizing the hard work that lay ahead.

Street Roots had the chance to sit down with Fish over breakfast while in Seattle to talk about the trip and the environment around homeless and housing services.

Israel Bayer: Your thoughts on Seattle so far?

Nick Fish: I have been impressed. The comprehensive view of delivering services, 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.: Concerning the environment and transportation, the Pacific Northwest has become a national model for sustainability and urban planning. Can we create a culture where housing is a part of this conversation?

N.F.: Yes. Portland is pushing the envelope by implementing long-term, cost effective solutions to end homelessness and provide homes for those most in need. Sustainability is core to this work, because I believe that low-income families should enjoy access to healthy living environments just like the rest of us. Bud Clark Commons will be a LEED Platinum building. Block 49 in South Waterfront will be on the new streetcar line. The Ramona is a LEED gold building and a showcase for energy efficient practices.

Portland has a great opportunity to be a national showcase for the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s new vision of sustainable communities — blending transportation choices, affordable housing and sustainability. Our residents of modest means can really benefit when we make sure they have access to affordable, quality homes that are close to good schools, grocery stores and bus service.

I.B.: The Portland Housing Bureau has undergone some enormous changes, including the merger between the Portland Development Commission and the Bureau of Housing and Community Development and creating a strategic plan. Can you talk a little bit about this process and your vision for the bureau?

N.F.: It has been a challenging two years. Advocates talked about the need for change for over a decade. In my first year on Council, the Mayor and I acted to bring all the city’s housing programs and resources under one roof.

I am very proud of the work of Director Margaret Van Vliet and her dedicated team at PHB. They have worked hard to restructure the city’s housing delivery system and to weather this economic storm.

Looking forward, with a stronger foundation, we need to address the challenges on the horizon: developing a new sustainable funding source, addressing equity, fighting for our fair share of federal and state dollars, and strengthening our partnerships.

I.B.: While the city has put together several major projects for affordable housing in the past two years, it’s also facing a major revenue decline through tax-increment financing (a major source of affordable housing funding) of up to $16 million. How does the city meet the challenges in the years to come?

N.F.: We need to continue to invest in long term, cost effective strategies to meet the needs of all Portlanders.  But the TIF cliff — the decline in available TIF resources — is real. In the future, we must develop sustainable and flexible resources beyond our federal entitlements and TIF.  Our trip to Seattle was a first step in our plan to lead on this issue.

I.B.: Your thoughts on 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 backfill 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 do we honestly build a movement — what’s your take on this?

N.F.: At one time I worked for (Massachusetts Congressmen) 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 (executive director of Seattle’s Downtown Emergency Service Center) 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 the 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.

Photo by Ken Hawkins.

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