(Portland Tribune) — A handshake helped pave the way.
One of the stickiest and most highly visible Portland conflicts appears ready to be resolved this week with a deal to move the controversial Right 2 Dream Too homeless campground from its site at Northwest Fourth Avenue and Burnside Street.
The anticipated deal means each side gets some, but not all, of what it wanted. Right 2 Dream Too is getting a new, rent-free, city-owned site for a homeless campground underneath the Broadway Bridge ramp. But the lease on the new site is not indefinite.
Owners of the Right 2 Dream Too property are being let off the hook for more than $20,000 in city fines for hosting what the city claimed was an illegal urban campground. But they still face restrictions on their property that will make it difficult to gain revenue by hosting food carts.
The city gets rid of two big headaches. Right 2 Dream Too disappears from its site next to the Chinatown Gate. That distinction has angered Chinese community leaders and held up some Old Town development. Also, the property owners and Right 2 Dream Too representatives agree to drop their lawsuit against the city.
The deal sounds simple, yet for nearly two years there had been virtually no real progress concerning Right 2 Dream Too.
The handshake? That happened three weeks ago, according to Michael Wright, co-owner of the Right 2 Dream Too property, who says Mayor Charlie Hales approached him and offered his hand.
“He said, ‘On behalf of the city of Portland I’d like to apologize for the way you’ve been treated for these last few years,’ ” Wright says.
Hales has been on vacation the past two weeks, but Dana Haynes, his communications director, says the meeting took place. “I can confirm that the mayor and Mr. Wright met before the mayor went on his vacation,” Haynes says. “The mayor wanted to say: ‘The past is the past. I don’t care who was at fault then. It’s important to find a site for Right 2 Dream Too.’ ”
Fritz takes new approach
To understand the significance of that handshake, you have to know a little bit about Wright’s history, and the history of Right 2 Dream Too.
In 2007, city inspectors closed down Cindy’s Adult Bookstore, which Wright, who has a murder conviction in his past, had been operating at the Burnside property. Wright had the building razed, and the property became an eyesore of an empty gravel lot where homeless people occasionally slept, people occasionally urinated and others scrawled graffiti.
Wright, who hopes to eventually sell the property, became convinced the city was trying to force him to sell at a discount, and he erected a series of signs on his lot accusing City Commissioners Randy Leonard and Dan Saltzman of illegally targeting him.
Looking to gain income from the property, in the summer of 2011 Wright leased space to two food cart owners who stayed open late and, by most accounts, improved the property. But Portland’s Bureau of Development Services, once headed by Leonard and later by Saltzman, ruled that Wright could not rent to food carts because his property was unpaved and city rules require carts to sit on pavement.
Wright offered to pave the property for the food carts, but the bureau ruled that would be illegal due to a moratorium on new central city parking lots. So, in the fall of 2011, Wright began talking to talk to leaders of the Dignity Village homeless camp near Portland International Airport. Eventually he invited them to set up rent-free at his Burnside property.
The city responded by declaring the campsite illegal, though Portland city code does not have a regulation specifically governing urban campsites. The city began slapping monthly fines on the property owners that eventually reached more than $20,000. Very little of the fines was ever paid. Wright and property co-owner Dan Cossette, along with Right 2 Dream Too, sued the city in Multnomah County Circuit Court, with Portland attorney Mark Kramer handling the case for free.
A stalemate had been reached — until three weeks ago. Multnomah County Circuit Judge Karin J. Immergut asked all sides to attempt an agreement before she ruled on whether to dismiss the Right 2 Dream Too lawsuit. In addition, new pressure was exerted from Portland’s Chinese community because a national conference bringing more than 500 Lee family members was scheduled for Labor Day weekend, and organizers wanted to hold a walk through Chinatown.
Attorney Kramer credits Hales and City Commissioner Amanda Fritz for much of the breakthrough. Fritz assumed control of the Bureau of Development Services this year. Kramer says she brought a new attitude toward the tricky zoning questions represented by Right 2 Dream Too.
According to Kramer, when he started working on the case he held two meetings with Commissioners Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman. Fish headed the housing bureau and was focused on homeless issues. Saltzman headed BDS, which had been issuing fines on the Right 2 Dream Too property. Neither, according to Kramer, actively sought a solution.
“Basically, the end game at that point was, ‘You want to move? Find a place and we’ll think about it,’ ” Kramer says.
Fritz, he says, took a different approach, and found a site. “She’s been very positive,” he says. “She’s been a visionary in a sense. Yes, we do need this alternative model, not everybody can go to a shelter.”
Lease terms for new site
Right 2 Dream Too has positioned itself as an alternative for homeless people who can’t go into shelters for social reasons. Some are couples, and most shelters host men or women exclusively. Some have pets — not allowed in shelters. Others suffer mental illnesses that make them uncomfortable in a crowded shelter.
“Right 2 Dream Too is really a different model for dealing with that population, and Amanda, to her credit, realizes there is something there,” Kramer says.
Fish says that while he headed the housing bureau he had staff look at the possibility of designating Right 2 Dream Too a transitional housing campground, but the Right 2 Dream Too leaders were not interested. Beyond that, Fish isn’t sure finding a new site for the campground or encouraging other such campgrounds for the homeless makes good policy.
“It doesn’t fit,” Fish says. “It’s not our model, which is long-term, cost-effective strategies to combat homelessness, and it’s built around permanent housing.”
Fish sees Right 2 Dream Too as a short-term solution. The housing bureau, he says, has limited resources, and he’d rather see them spent on building and finding apartments.
“I understand the temptation to look for short-term fixes, but we’ve got to continue to look long term and to seek the funding for what we know works,” Fish says. “A campground is no substitute for a home.”
One of the final issues holding up an agreement was precisely how short- or long-term a lease the city would give Right 2 Dream Too. In initial talks, Right 2 Dream Too insisted on a one-year minimum. The city started at six months.
In an Aug. 21 proposed final offer, Fritz agreed to a one-year lease, with a working group to include city and Right 2 Dream Too representatives looking at what happens after that year. An alternative site could be found or the lease could be extended — assuming Right 2 Dream Too upholds occupancy and “good neighbor” standards.
In that offer, Fritz wrote in an email detailing the plan, “While it is possible this site may become a permanent site for the resting community organized by R2DToo, the longevity will depend on how well it works out for all parties.”
Meanwhile, property owner Wright told the Tribune early last week that he was starting to feel left out of the negotiating process. He said he would not sign any deal that didn’t allow him to once again lease his property to food cart owners.
But eventually Wright relented, saying he would not hold up Right 2 Dream Too’s move to a new site.
“I’m in no worse shape than I was when this started,” Wright says. “I’m still sitting there with an empty lot with almost no ability to pay the taxes on it.”
For his part, Wright says the handshake from Hales mattered, no matter what the reason.
“I’m guessing (Hales), being a politician, the best thing to do with somebody they think is a dangerous nut is to go ahead and diffuse them, whether they mean it or not,” Wright says.