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Chair's Blog

It is time for everyone to demand better solutions from our elected leaders May 2016
By Mitch Hornecker

At this year’s Annual Meeting, the theme “Portland takes flight” reflected real optimism for Portland-metro’s economic future. But we also talked about challenges facing the region, most notably homelessness and housing affordability. The opportunities and challenges ahead are captured in our event video as well as in this excerpt from comments made by Portland Business Alliance board chair Mitch Hornecker during the event.
At our annual meeting, we typically pause a moment and reflect on the last 12 months.
 
What a year! As our annual meeting theme suggests, the big message is that the Portland-metro economy appears to be taking off.
 
In our sixth Value of Jobs Economic Check Up, published last December, the Alliance documented that Portland-metro’s economy has more than recovered the jobs we lost in the Great Recession, and job numbers continue to be strong. The region’s unemployment rate is less than 5 percent, and, thanks largely to the electronics industry, our productivity numbers – the regional GDP – ranks near the top for regions globally.
 
All good news. Great news, in fact.  However, about a year ago, the Alliance published another report with two significant take-aways.
 
In our Middle Income Jobs report, we documented how Portland-metro, like many regions across the country, has lost middle-income jobs as a percentage of our overall workforce. What this means is that those jobs we have gained back since the Great Recession are overwhelming upper- and lower-wage jobs – with middle-wage jobs trailing significantly.
 
In our report, we also looked at housing and found a startling reality: To be able to purchase a home in most of the city of Portland, a family would have to earn $70,000 a year, which means most middle-income families in Portland are currently priced out of the American dream of home ownership for the first time since World War II. 
 
The bottom line: The loss of middle-income jobs combined with rising housing costs is having a devastating impact on working families.
 
In the year since we published our report, the issue of home affordability – even home availability – has moved to front and center of our regional psyche. A recent poll of Portland-metro residents showed the majority of respondents - 42 percent - believe homelessness and housing/affordable housing are the top issues the city should focus on, outranking transportation and education in importance.
 
With approximately 700 people moving to our region every month, Portland-metro suffers from a lack of housing inventory at nearly every point of the affordability scale in both the ‘for sale’ and ‘for rent’ markets.
 
Not surprisingly, this problem is felt most acutely at the middle and lower ends of the scale. Rising costs for both rentals and ownership means families are moving out further from the city’s core to find more affordable options. Historically, this has meant a march eastward towards Portland’s border with Gresham. 
 
The problem is that today, outer east Portland has some of the lowest vacancy rates in the region, leaving little or no options for a family living there now but currently looking for a lower-cost alternative. That means a family in outer east Portland losing their apartment because of redevelopment -- or because of an unexpected medical bill or missed paycheck -- isn’t looking for a cheaper apartment, because they don’t exist. Instead they are faced with options that include trying to get a limited spot at a social service agency, living in their car or even living on the streets. This is a new and unwelcome dynamic for Portland. 
 
The current best guess of Portland’s homeless population is about 4,000 about half of whom are living with no roof over their heads. Who are these people?  As mentioned above, some have suffered a temporary setback and, with some emergency relief and a small hand up, could quickly exit homelessness. Some are suffering from mental illness or addictions and need more robust services before being able to exit homelessness. Some are just passing through Portland while living a deliberately itinerant lifestyle; and a small group are committing crimes, mostly preying on other homeless.
 
In short, people become homeless for many reasons, but we must remember that most deserve and need our help.
 
But the reality is that with our current vast undersupply of emergency shelters and programs to support them, Portland’s homeless population will continue to grow.  We know what that means. We see it every day when we drive to work, visit a park or trail, or take a walk through virtually any neighborhood in the city, and especially when we volunteer, as so many of us do, at the many wonderful social service programs in our city.
 
Every night, people are turned away from shelters because we don’t have enough emergency beds to say nothing about the lack of permanent housing. Elected, community and business leaders have come together to address this crisis and some progress has been made. Most notably, Portland, Gresham and Multnomah County are working together for the first time to try to make real change by removing redundancies, consolidating and streamlining management and pooling resources; primarily focusing on long term solutions.  Perhaps that makes sense but it means we will continue to lack emergency shelter. 
 
I know there are several groups working towards a solution for more emergency shelter beds so if you are asked to get involved, please give it a listen.  And don’t be fooled by the political apologists. Not every city is being overwhelmed like Portland. Cities like Salt Lake City, San Antonio and Houston are not.    
 
Portland can, and must, do better.
 
We need to stand together and say that Portland is not now, and never has been, a city where we accept the proposition that sleeping outdoors is a “safe sleep” option. The current situation is not a humane option, it is not a sanitary option and it is most certainly not a safe option.
 
We now have illegal tent camps on the same block as a pre-school, and seem surprised when a resident of one of those tents is shot just a couple of hours before the school opens. We now have children’s summer bike camps canceled due to safety concerns on the Springwater Corridor. There are fires in these camps every week.  To be frank, the current Safe Sleep policy has created a dangerous environment for all of us but especially for those who are living on the streets.
 
Portland can – and must – do better.
 
If I sound frustrated and a little angry, it is because I am and I hope you are too.  It is time for all of us to demand better solutions from our elected leaders.
 
To that end, over the last several months, the Alliance has conducted our “Portland Can Do Better” campaign. Primarily through social media, we have created a forum for discussion and an avenue to communicate with elected officials that has generated thousands of emails to Portland City Hall, demanding action to provide more indoor shelter, more services and more enforcement against illegal behaviors. Our goal is to ensure that this issue stays front and center throughout the 2016 Portland mayoral election, so that whoever is elected knows that all of Portland expects strong leadership and better solutions to Portland’s housing and homelessness crisis.
 
So where does all of this leave us?  We have seen good growth as Portland-metro takes off, and we have identified some challenges.   
 
As the region’s business leaders, we must work together to ensure these challenges are met so that Portland-metro can be a place where every individual has a roof over their head, and where families can thrive because good jobs are plentiful.  We can make this happen if we demand it of ourselves and of our elected leaders.
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