Portland Can’t Fix Its Homelessness Crisis Without Learning from San Francisco

“How does the Bay Area handle the homelessness issue?”

When we invited questions about what Portland can learn from the Bay Area about managing growth, several readers asked us about homelessness — and it’s no surprise.

Portland’s homelessness crisis ranks among the worst in the country, and on any given night, thousands of people sleep without shelter.

We’ve recently taken some steps in the right direction, including passing two affordable housing bonds and adding additional shelter beds. But even elected officials admit that current efforts won’t end the problem of homelessness. They might just prevent it from getting worse.

So is San Francisco a model for how to do things better?

The short answer: not exactly, but it certainly offers a cautionary tale.

What San Francisco is Getting Right — and Very Wrong

The homelessness numbers in San Francisco are even more staggering than they are in Portland.

In the most prosperous city in America, more than 8,000 people sleep in cars, shelters, or on the streets, and the city receives about 34,000 requests a year to clean up needles or human waste.

Officials in San Francisco say the problem would be even worse without their efforts, and the data backs that up.

In 2017-18, the city spent nearly $200 million on supportive housing and rent assistance to help low-income residents remain housed. And last year, voters approved a new business tax to help the city double down.

If it withstands a court challenge, that tax would raise an additional $300 million per year to support mental health services, subsidized housing, and other anti-homelessness programs in San Francisco.

That’s a huge amount of money, and more money is generally a good thing. The problem is that it won’t do anything to address the structural problems that actually create homelessness in San Francisco.

Since 2010, San Francisco has added only one unit of new housing for every eight new jobs in the city. That supply-and-demand imbalance has caused housing prices to skyrocket, which isn’t exactly an accident.  

For decades now, San Francisco homeowners (who benefit from rising property values) have fought new housing developments at every turn — and thanks to California state law, they have a huge number of opportunities to win that battle.

Environmental reviews and appeals. Ballot measures. Bureaucratic maneuvering. Opponents of density can find a way to kill or stall almost any project, and even the ones that do advance are ultimately less economical and less affordable because of the byzantine permitting process.

If you want the full backstory behind San Francisco’s housing and homelessness crisis, check out journalist Kim-Mai Cutler’s excellent explainer for TechCrunch.

But if you only remember one number, remember this one: 3.4 million. That’s how many new housing units California would have to build to reverse its current housing shortage, compared to 3.9 million units for the rest of the United States combined.

The depth of that housing shortfall is why a real solution to San Francisco’s homelessness crisis seems out of reach — and why Portland would be smart to start clearing the obstacles to housing production now, before it’s too late.  

What Portland Can Do Right Now

There’s a stubborn theory in cities like Portland that housing works like the old Field of Dreams maxim: “If you build it, they will come.” And by extension, if you don’t build it, they won’t come.

But San Francisco has proven that narrative wrong. Even though residents there have mostly succeeded at blocking denser housing, they haven’t stopped people from moving to a region with world-class universities, high-paying jobs, unrivaled access to capital, and a strong quality of life.

The same will be true for Portland. Our investments in public schools, our budding start-up community, our temperate climate, and our progressive culture will all attract more people to the city over the next 30 years.

We could always root for those things to flounder, but that would be like wishing for Portland to become Toledo. Yes, people might stop moving here, but that comes with its own set of problems.

So what can we do to plan ahead for the growth that’s coming? Turns out it’s the perfect time to be asking that question.

The Oregon Legislature is expected to vote this week on a bill that would allow duplexes to be built in residential neighborhoods currently zoned for single-family housing.

It’s a small change, and it’s not the kind of thing that will move the needle overnight. But allowing slightly denser development in cities like Portland could make a meaningful dent in our state’s housing shortage over the next 30 to 50 years.

In that same spirit, the City of Portland is considering an even more ambitious upzoning proposal, the Residential Infill Project, that would allow duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, and secondary ADUs in many residential neighborhoods where they’re currently banned.

Again, it’s not a magic bullet, but if planners can address some legitimate technical questions about how to prevent displacement, the Residential Infill Project would be another step toward preventing a California-level housing shortage.

Those efforts — combined with continued investment in subsidized housing, improvements to the permitting process, and perhaps some support from a future president — would help Portland address the “upstream” problems that push people into homelessness in the first place.

The challenge then would be to provide housing and social services to the people who are already living on the streets or on the margins. That’s no easy task, but we at least have a roadmap for how to do it.

As I wrote last fall, Portland was one of the first cities in the country to reduce veteran homelessness to “functional zero,” thanks to a two-year push to get 1,200 homeless vets into housing.

Meeting the same target for Portland’s entire homeless population would require many of the same solutions, just at a larger scale.

We’d need to expand homelessness prevention programs that provide short-term rent assistance to people experiencing a layoff or medical emergency. We’d need to create more supportive housing units to help people with chronic mental illness stay on their feet.

Basically, we’d need to do more of the same — just without a housing shortage that makes the problem worse at a faster rate than we can fix it.