On Wednesday, April 28, 2021, Portland City Council adopted a significant package of zoning code amendments to address the growing crisis of houseless Portlanders. The Shelter to Housing Continuum (S2HC) changes address the Zoning Code (Title 33) and six other City codes (Titles 8, 15, 17, 21, 29, and 30).
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The S2HC project was initiated as part of City Council's Housing Emergency Declaration in 2015. The code changes remove barriers that slow down the City-County effort to open more homeless shelters. The package also includes changes that expand housing choice and facilitate the production of affordable housing projects.
Before voting, Commissioner Dan Ryan, who oversees the Housing Bureau, said, “We are at an inflection point with an unprecedented emergency on our streets as the number of chronic houseless people has grown at an alarming rate. Our current response is inadequate and our work to provide shelters has been hampered by restrictive zoning codes.”
The S2HC package has four elements to address the issue:
- Code changes that make it easier to site homeless shelters and associated services in various zones.
- A new community service use in the Zoning Code called “Outdoor Shelters.” This will allow public agencies and community-based nonprofits to open more shelters like the Kenton Women's Village or St Johns Village. Until now these kinds of shelters required code exemptions from City Council one at a time. The recommended code language provides a more routine path to permit these kind facilities, based on emerging alternative shelter models around the city.
- Increased housing flexibility by allowing group living configurations more broadly. The project further legalizes single room occupancy units in some zoning districts, and removes the conditional use requirement, which streamlines the review process for many regulated affordable housing projects that incorporate that format. This means that alternative types of housing such as dormitories, senior care facilities, co-housing, and single-room occupancy apartments will be easier to build.
- Allowing occupancy of a recreational vehicle or a tiny house on wheels on residential property.
How we got here
Council considered the S2HC package over the course of five meetings and held a public hearing on March 17. Commissioners discussed the proposals and testimony on March 24 and considered amendments on March 31. A supplemental hearing occurred on April 14 to consider shelters on institutional sites in single-dwelling zones and discuss residential occupancy of RVs and tiny houses on wheels.
City Council received more than 2,500 written comments, and several hundred people testified at online virtual hearings. Concern about the possibility of temporary shelters being allowed in the Open Space zone dominated the oral and written testimony. People expressed worries about the ongoing impact of homelessness and urged Commissioners to avoid using park land for homeless facilities. Testifiers also urged Council to let faith-based institutions play a larger role.
Advocates of tiny houses on wheels testified in support of the package but asked for a relaxation of sewer connection requirements. Council did not make changes to that aspect of the package but did ask bureaus to work on making the permitting process as simple as possible.
“We’ve reached the end of Shelter to Housing,” said Commissioner Carmen Rubio, “but we’re beginning to work with Commissioner Dan Ryan to make tiny houses on wheels and RVs more accessible.”
Council made several significant changes to the Planning and Sustainability Commission recommendation, including:
- Prohibiting shelters in natural area overlays in all zones.
- Prohibiting temporary outdoor shelters in the Open Space zone. The PSC recommendation already prohibited permanent shelters in the OS zone. Temporary indoor mass shelters would continue to be allowed.
- Council would retain the authority to site temporary shelters in any location during a declared emergency.
- A directive for City bureaus to examine surplus city property for suitability as transitional shelter accommodations and affordable housing.
- Allowing shelters without Conditional Use up to 20 beds on institutional sites in single-dwelling zones.
Casting the last of the five aye votes, Mayor Ted Wheeler noted that it wasn’t feasible or reasonable to perpetually rely on emergency powers to deal with the homeless crisis. He also reflected what he heard from people with lived experience.
“People want to stay in their community where they feel connected … and traditional congregate shelters don’t necessarily work for everybody,” he stated. “So, we’re codifying these changes in City Charter with this new use type, Outdoor Shelter.”
He then thanked the Planning and Sustainability Commission who “helped set the stage for these proposals.”
The shelter-related elements of the package go into effect immediately. The group living and RV/tiny house on wheels elements will take effect on Aug. 1, 2021.
Through a separate ordinance, City Council also extended the current housing emergency until April 2022.