A plan to transform Portland together: Guest opinion

Tents line a path along Interstate 205 in the Lents neighborhood, where residents say the homeless population has exploded after the Springwater Corridor was swept a year ago. (Stephanie Yao Long/Staff )


Most of us pass by the tents everyday. They remind us that people are suffering. Homelessness hurts all of us, and we need to address it before we can move forward with other priorities. This requires a bold plan with specific goals, one that our community can enthusiastically support.

Portland is no stranger to bold projects. In 1942 we built housing for 40,000 people in 110 days. The world was at war and Portlanders used that spirit of unity to solve housing challenges. In October 2015, the Portland City Council declared a state of emergency around the city’s affordable housing crisis. How many units of housing for our homeless have we built since then? Portland has made some progress, we’ve housed most homeless veterans for instance, but it’s not nearly enough.

Let’s take inspiration from the civic-minded shipbuilder Henry Kaiser, who led the 1942 housing project, and get people who are sleeping on our streets into housing. Let’s get homeless people into housing first, and then help them with the services that will guide them on a positive path into the future. Currently, we have about 4,000 homeless people in Portland, with about 1,600 living on our streets in tents.

Two weeks ago, a friend told me he was helping to build a house for Habitat for Humanity. He was beaming. This got me to thinking: what if we put together a city-wide community effort to build housing for every one of our 4,000 homeless people in two years? Let’s immediately form a group a leadership team of five to seven people, who are mostly from the private sector and ready to go after this crisis.

Here are proposed steps for the Portland 2018 Housing for Houseless Initiative:

Land: The initiative should create an acquisition group made up of top real estate people, community members and homeless advocates, and identify public or private land and existing buildings for short-term (5 to 10 years) or permanent use.
Research: Initiative leaders should seek to coordinate what’s been done already and add to it. Analyze our houseless population for best types of housing for each person to achieve long term success. Tiny house community? Enhanced shelter? Permanent supportive housing? Seek out good ideas from the community. Listen to our homeless. Determine the most efficient way to deliver housing rapidly and cost effectively.
Money: Housing bond money should be used to fund the initiative, aiming to quickly create more units through innovation, effective design and scale. Ask our state legislators to support an initiative allowing Portland’s bond funds to be used with proven affordable housing funding programs. In addition, build an overall plan to engage private health care providers, businesses, construction companies, developers, philanthropists and others to align private and public resources to build more units.
Construction: The initiative could bring together an army of managers, planners, designers and builders, along with architects, construction and modular housing companies, building trades, material suppliers, colleges and schools (Benson Tech is already building tiny houses). This work would be a combination of donated services and ‘at-cost,’ as this is a community project that will benefit all of us.

The idea is to unleash Portland potential on our homelessness crisis. We can make a huge difference rapidly. It would be great for our community and provide our city with a positive pursuit. The best part is we would save lives and give hope to the people who have almost given up.

I propose The Portland 2018 Housing for Houseless Initiative to house our 4,000 homeless people in safe, warm, dry housing in two years. A mega, community-wide project that will be transformational for Portland. Homelessness has haunted Portland for too long. Let’s confront this head on. Let’s make Portland home.

— Stuart Emmons is a Portland architect with 30 years experience in housing for homeless. He was a candidate for Portland City Council in 2016.

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