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Portland City Council agrees to focus on safety, housing and economy as city faces historic challenges

News Article
Shared priorities will shape the Portland City Council’s budget and policy decisions during 2021.
The Portland City Council includes, from top left, Commissioner Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, Mayor Ted Wheeler, Commissioner Carmen Rubio, Commissioner Mingus Mapps and Commissioner Dan Ryan.
Portland City Council, clockwise from top left: Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, Mayor Ted Wheeler, Commissioner Carmen Rubio, Commissioner Mingus Mapps and Commissioner Dan Ryan. Photos by Kat Berbari.

Coming together to address historic crises, the Portland City Council has elevated three shared priorities to guide budget and policy decisions during 2021: developing a new model for community safety, addressing houselessness and supporting economic recovery.

Over the next 12 to 18 months the City Council will collaborate to make meaningful progress on these priorities, which they identified and discussed during a Jan. 21 work session. City leaders said it’s essential to focus limited resources on actions that will have the biggest impact as Portlanders navigate a public health crisis, the economic recession it has caused, and a racial justice reckoning.

“No matter what our bureau assignments are, we know that we’re accountable to these top priorities,” Commissioner Dan Ryan said during the work session.

This work is rooted in a set of values that the City Council adopted last year: equity, anti-racism, collaboration, transparency, communication and fiscal responsibility. It also builds on the City’s commitment to center equity and climate action in its COVID-19 response. 

This photo shows a banner from the Resist COVID campaign that says "thank you" to frontline workers, mounted on the side of the art museum building downtown
City Council members agreed to elevate equity and other core values across their policy priorities.

During a dynamic discussion, Council members reached broad agreement on the most pressing issues facing Portland – and the importance of centering historically marginalized communities across each of those priorities.

First, the Council committed to reimagine community safety by developing an innovative system that reduces racial disparities and makes it possible for everybody in Portland to feel safe. Council members identified a broad range of ways to advance this goal, including non-policing resources, engagement tailored to culturally specific communities and police accountability.   

“As leaders, I think we increasingly appreciate that safety looks and feels different to different people,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said. “We understand that more and different tools are needed, that police agencies are part of a broader public safety system – but they are not the system.”

The Council established houselessness and housing affordability as another top priority, mirroring public opinion research that has consistently shown it’s a top concern for Portlanders. The city’s housing crisis has become more visible over the past year, as the City minimized campsite removals to comply with public health guidance during the global pandemic.

City Council members said the situation has the potential to get worse this summer, when Oregon’s eviction moratorium ends and people affected by the recession face a potential crisis.

“We’ve got thousands of people living on the street now,” Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said. “We’ve got tens of thousands with the potential to live on the street, when the back rent will be due for people who have not been able to pay rent since March of last year. For me, that’s where the crisis is.”

Resolving Portland’s housing challenges will require a broad spectrum of strategies, Council members said, from long-term investments in affordable housing to short-term resources for people at risk of losing their housing. It will also require a nuanced approach, recognizing that homelessness may have different causes and solutions across different communities.

The Council also discussed their shared vision around a third priority: economic recovery and prosperity. They committed to supporting Portland residents and business owners in meeting basic needs over the coming months, while advancing a long-term recovery that lifts up Black people, Indigenous people, people of color and others who have historically been harmed or ignored by public investments.

A woman of color sits surrounded by brown paper bags. She is putting in art supplies into these kits to distribute to children.
The City of Portland has invested COVID-19 relief funds in community programs that provide supplies, technology, food and more.

Commissioners said it’s impossible to separate Portland’s economic challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic. To dig out of the current financial crisis, Commissioner Mingus Mapps said, we have to stabilize public health – beginning with vaccinations.

“Ultimately, that’s our way to fix this,” Mapps said. “In the meantime, people need to eat. School doesn’t work unless you have a working computer and internet access. Making your rent or mortgage payment is very important, too.”

In addition to the unanimously agreed-upon priorities, the City Council found common ground on a variety of topics. Multiple Council members expressed interest in improving the condition of streets and public spaces, enhancing the economic vitality of neighborhoods, making strategic investments in transportation, and supporting the arts as a way to promote economic, spiritual and community healing.

“I’m very interested in reactivating public spaces and what that means for us, in this time of having experienced a long disconnection in community,” said Commissioner Carmen Rubio, who oversees Portland Parks & Recreation and serves as Portland’s Arts Commissioner. “This pandemic has required Portland to stay home for a year now. It would also enable us to start to engage with the arts community about the reemergence of our community together in public, and what that might look like.”

Over the next few months, the Council plans to refine goals within each of the three priority areas – beginning with community safety. The Council will explore that topic during a work session at 9:30 a.m. on Feb. 2.

“This work needs to be urgent,” Wheeler said. “It needs to be holistic. It needs to be thoughtful. And it needs to be collaborative.”