Code Changes Could Relieve Homeless Crisis

By Nancy Tannler

Portland City Council declared a housing emergency in October of 2015, to help deal both with the city’s homeless and the affordable housing crisis. That housing emergency is set to expire in April 2021.

To protect these temporary sites, the Shelter to Housing Continuum Project (S2HC) is reviewing and proposing changes to parts of the Portland City Code to allow them to continue and expand upon the previous housing emergency declarations of 2015.

This is a multi-jurisdictional effort of the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS), the Housing Bureau and the Joint City-County Office of Homeless Services. 

They have partnered to review and propose changes in order to expand housing and shelter options for individuals and households with extremely low incomes.

In 2019, 878 new affordable housing units were built and another 3,100 are in development. Even with this progress, it is obvious there are still a lot of unhoused individuals – approximately 4,015 at last count. The COVID-19 pandemic has even more people teetering on the edge of homelessness.

Solutions being explored will modify current permitting procedures, and some will require new City Code to be established. The S2HC project will make no changes to the zoning map, Portland City Code Title 33, which contains the City’s land use regulations. 

Other Titles may be amended, like Title 24 that governs how development is allowed, or Title 29, that controls the types of uses that may occupy various types of structures.

The main code changes under consideration will provide more flexibility for shelter siting, establish outdoor shelters for community use, expand group living allowances and allow permanent occupancy of recreational vehicles and tiny houses on wheels (THOW).

These stipulations are already used during periodic declarations of emergency. What the S2HC is working to accomplish is to establish new codes and procedures to allow the quick opening of temporary shelters in temporary locations. 

These shelters would be allowed to operate for 180 days and in certain zones, and could remain for longer periods through base zone allowances or conditional use reviews.

Other terminology under review is clarifying what constitutes residential use. S2HC finds the current code ambiguous and constricting. 

Single Room Occupancies can be classified as Group Living, Household Living, or Retail Sales and Service, depending on technical details. The proposed code designates two types of residential use: Household Living and Group Living.

Legalizing recreational vehicles and tiny houses on wheels (THOW) on residential property is being proposed as this is currently prohibited by Title 29. This change would allow an RV or THOW on property that allows an accessory dwelling unit (ADU). The intent is to acknowledge the need for a wider continuum of housing types and to accommodate more people.

When asked about property owners charging for people to park, Al Burns, AICP, Senior City Planner, Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, Project Manager said, “The proposed regulations do not control, so a property owner may either charge rent for the RV or THOW or allow someone to live in it for free.”

The city is temporarily allowing overnight camping in RVs and THOWs on private property. The RVs and THOWs must be titled and registered by the State of Oregon. 

Currently, City Code does not permit long-term residential occupancy of a vehicle. Residential occupancy of a tiny home without wheels, attached to a foundation is allowed by current Zoning Code and Building Code either as primary dwelling or ADU.

 There are a few existing legal paths. Campgrounds, (anytime there are more than two vehicles parked together, it is considered a campground and requires a state license) and some commercial hotels operate as campgrounds and RV parks. Religious institutions can host up to three vehicles for the community.

Public testimony ended December 21, 2020. There is a lot of positive support for the S2HC because the need is so great. One of the biggest red flags expressed repeatedly is where will the city allow shelter, RV and THOW sites? As it stands now, the S2HC draft does not exclude parks and open spaces.

Daniel Newberry, Executive Director of the Johnson Creek Watershed Council said, “Over the past few years, we’ve watched a humanitarian housing crisis develop into an environmental crisis. People need to stay warm, and have privacy where they live. Unfortunately, trees that were planted by streams to provide shade for salmon have become a casualty of these needs.”

 Burns said, “This project nudges Portland a little bit closer toward doing enough. The accomplishments to date of the Portland Housing Bureau and the Joint City/County Office of Homelessness Services are to be applauded.”

Like most other people concerned with this crisis, Burns realizes it won’t be solved until federal, state and local level city and county governments are doing their part.

The recommended draft for the project will be presented to City Council this winter and become effective by March of 2021.

For more information, visit portland.gov/bps/s2hc/s2hc-faq.

Code Changes Could Relieve Homeless Crisis

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