The promises made by City Councilors at the Lents Town Hall, so you can hold them accountable

If you couldn’t attend, the first half of the Lents Town Hall was a powerful presentation of the livabilty issues facing the neighborhood. while the second half focused on specific questions for the Portland City Councilors present.

Town hall organizer and LNA Livability Committee chair Jennifer Smith said she got flack for having pre-submitted questions at the town hall, but it makes sense: the councilors had time to do research and do some thinking about the actions they were willing to take.

The Councilors made some solid promises, listed a few issues they said they’d explore, and also had requests for action from Lents neighbors. Audio from the Q&A is available above, and I’m adding times so you can skip to the part described.

I have audio of the first half of the presentation, but there was a pair of videographers with the neighborhood association filming. LNA reps said the slide show and videos would go online, but I haven’t seen them posted yet. There was a lot of eye opening information from the LNA and Green Lents (website), so I hope more than just the neighbors in the room can see it soon. Please let me know if it’s been posted somewhere I haven’t seen.

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The first question (1:50) was about Lents Park. Lents resident Cathy Richie said that when they called 9-1-1 to report crime, police often didn’t respond, and when they did, no arrests were made. She also said that last summer Lents Park was overrun with RVs, and the people who lived in them were selling drugs and conducting prostitution. Later in the meeting, “No Overnight Parking” signs were also requested for the park.

5:20: Mayor Ted Wheeler, who also serves as the chief of police, said the presentation had a “huge impact” on him. Compared to closer-in Portland, he admitted Lents hadn’t received equity regarding responsiveness from police transportation, homeless, and housing.

He pointed to his work as one of the conveners  East Portland Action Plan (official website) as a step to right that wrong, and fulfill promises around transportation, parks, public safety, schools, infrastructure made when East Portland was annexed in the 1980s. If you’re not familiar with that history, the Oregonian has a telling series called “Broken Promises“.

Wheeler said he would rebuild the community policing model, which he said has shown to reduce crime and build trust between police and the community. A big part of that is getting officers out of their cruisers, he said, and get them walking a beat. He also said there are funds in the new police contract to develop unarmed community service officers, to handle calls that don’t require regular police officer.

Wheeler said 800 new shelter beds in community, and 4,600 people from homelesslessness to housing. He said the Unity Center (KOIN article) was opened last year, a multi-jurisdictional effort offering emergency psychiatric services.

A lot of the problem stems from addiction, and Wheeler said what’s happening in Lents is happening all over the nation, Wheeler said, and that it would take time, money, and focused community partnerships to turn the tide.

Wheeler pointed to Seattle, where public property was designated for RV living. Help with job training and addiction services, she said. It’s not necessarily a bad idea, but a January Seattle Times article said the programs related to the RV parks had essentially “unraveled”.

Comissioner Chloe Eudaly, as the head of Office of Neighborhood Involvement and Bureau of Development Services, was asked a question (15:30) about zombie homes (didn’t get fella’s name). She said in 2010, a study by Portland Police Bureau, Bureau of Environmental Services and ONI found 700 zombie homes in Portland. In 2016, Eudaly said that while the city hadn’t foreclosed on a house in 30 years, ten were foreclosed upon last year and ten more are scheduled for this year.

There’s a new hotline for Portland’s Extremely Distressed Property Enforcement program, she said: 503-823-2633. She asked those present to let her know how long it takes for someone to get back to them. After dismissing the heads of both agencies she’s running (ONI and BDS), it seems like she’s willing to shake things up.

When a neighbor asked if fines against inattentive property owners could be increased, she said that was up to the auditors office.

The crowd was pretty vocal most of the evening, and she got a lot of push back on her response about zombie homes (21:00). It seemed more based on her tone than anything, and Wheeler stepped in. He said that an effective response to unattended properties was to install a fence and bill the owner.

Another neighbor wanted to know what do do about camps near Lents School and the Steel Street Footbridge / I-205 Multi Use Path. He said he wanted to see the area near the school and Wattle Boy’s & Girl’s Club designated as a no camping zone.

A theme of the evening was the lack of coordination between agencies. In the presentation, Young showed an area near the Lents Town Center max station (below) contained property from five different agencies.

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Young asked police officers to get out of their cruisers and walk the path. Wheeler agreed that the routes to school should be a completely safe zone, and he plans to do that. At the end of the meeting (50:00), a nine-year-old named Natalie said she didn’t feel safe walking to school, asking for the Commissioners help.

45:00: Wheeler said Lents had received too much of the burden surrounding homelessness, and he pledged not to excacerbate the problems any further. He expressed concern that neighbors

Dan Saltzman, who heads the Transportation Bureau, said they could be doing a better job, but the number of abandoned cars has grown significantly. In 2012 there were 7,000, while in 2016 that had grown to 27,000. The crowd gasped.

More staff has been dedicated to parking services, and he said there’s a new program to recycle RVs. Saltzman also said— which was new to me— is that the city has a policy to never kick someone out of a vehicle, “no matter how dire” the situation. He said he was open to taking a more aggressive stance, but it had to be a group decision.

Fritz said she wanted to turn four East Portland park ranger positions from temporary to full time (for $363,760 annually). Three rangers patrolling the Spring Water Corridor would also be funded, she said.

Other neighbors asked about stopping the building of more affordable housing in Lents (she said 250 units were being built) until market rate housing was built. Wheeler said a $248 million dollar affordable housing bond was recently passed, and a community engagement group was being formed to guide its investment.

Another neighbor wanted to end the needle exchange in Lents, and another claimed the LNA board did fully represent the neighborhood because there were no renters on it. Two people who said they were homeless encouraged the neighbors assembled not to assume everyone who is homeless is a bad person or criminal.

The effort involved to make the town hall happen was impressive, and it seems City officials were listening. There were several proposals and promises floated by the Commissioners that deserve follow up, and it’s going to take consistent pressure to hold them accountable.

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