By Joanne Zuhl
New and familiar faces among the candidates for City Council addressed an invested audience on issues of affordable housing and homelessness this afternoon.
The City Commissioner Candidates’ Forum on Housing brought together the leading contenders for the two council seats on the ballot next Spring. Candidates Amanda Fritz, Mary Nolan and Teressa Raiford are contending for the Commissioner 1 position, currently held by Fritz. And candidates Jeri Sundvall-Williams and Steve Novick were there for the Commissioner 4 position, which is being vacated by Randy Leonard.
The panel fielded questions prepared by the event sponsors on issues of gentrification, job creation, funding for affordable housing, civil rights for the poor and streamlining bureaucracy. Oregon Opportunity Network, JOIN, 211info and Street Roots sponsored the event, which was held at the First Unitarian Church in Downtown Portland.
One underlying theme through several of the queries had to deal with preserving what we have, and finding new resources for what we need.
Steve Novick, like all the candidates, acknowledged the tough times ahead – the city is facing an 8 percent spending reduction in the next budget cycle, federal and state funds are drying up, and the city’s housing fund generator, tax increment financing, is facing a major drop in revenue in the coming years.
Novick put forward several options for potential resources, including adopting a local beer and wine tax and a possible prison dividend drawn from the savings of sending fewer people to prison for shorter terms. He also revisited a major theme of his campaign: health care, as a measure of prevention, cost savings and job creation.
“My biggest plank on jobs is making Portland the best city in the world on controlling health care costs.” Novick told the audience. “It will make us a magnet for business.”
Each candidate drew on his or her particular set of personal and professional circumstances. Jeri Sundvall-Williams referenced her personal struggles with the law, poverty, and the challenges to secure low-income housing and employment. She now works for the city, and spoke pointedly on the laws that penalize people who have no money.
“My greatest frustration with the city is how people like me get treated,” Sundvall-Williams said, noting the system of fines and penalties for people who can’t afford basic needs such as transportation. “One of my biggest stressors is watching the criminalization of people in poverty.”
On gentrification issues, Sundvall-Williams called for better planning for areas targeted for renewal. “We plan where our prosperity is going to be, we don’t plan for where our poverty pockets are going to be.”
Sundvall-Williams also called for greater investment in prevention programs such as drug and alcohol recovery programs and mental health services, which would be cost effective in preventing incarceration, keeping families together, and encouraging employment and sustainability.
Teressa Raiford delivered a message of inclusion – getting people from all communities in Portland at the table on issues that impact their neighborhoods. The absence of that inclusion has left many in some communities feeling gentrified and disenfranchised from the process.
“If we don’t include the whole core of Portland, than we’re still losing and missing the point.”
Oregon Rep. Mary Nolan spoke to creating a new culture in the city, one that fosters job creation, streamlines the bureaucracy for development, and changes the behavior and investments that have led to disparities in neighborhoods.
“I think we get our heads out of City Hall and into the neighborhoods,” she said when asked about correcting gentrification.
Nolan also called for making workforce housing a greater priority.
“We’ve put a priority on really low-income housing, and I understand the basis behind that. But what it has meant is that we have a growing gap in houses for families in the working class. We need to put more energy into solving that problem.”
Commissioner Amanda Fritz spoke frankly about her own role on the City Council, particularly as a backer for Commissioner Nick Fish, who overseas the Portland Housing Bureau. She defended her record on the sidewalk management ordinance, limited car camping and the implementation of the new Office of Equity and Human Rights. She said she would continue to support the 30 percent set aside for affordable housing, incentives to create more low-income units, and efforts to find another sustainable funding source for housing. She also stressed prevention, in mental health care, recovery and employment, to keep people from falling through the cracks.
“We need to be creating jobs within the city to make sure people who have had challenges can over come them and get good jobs,” Fritz said.
Check out the Street Roots Twitter for the play-by-play.