February 2016

Dear friends and neighbors,

The Legislature is more than halfway through its short February session and I wanted to update you on important bills that are beginning to take shape.

Multnomah County put housing at the top of its legislative agenda and legislative leaders are working on a handful of bills that would give cities the authority to dedicate a certain amount of new units as affordable and improve tenant protections.

Our community is short thousands of affordable apartments and spiking rents are making it harder and harder each day for families to hold onto their leases; low vacancy rates are making it next to impossible for families with low incomes to find any housing.

House Bill 4001 and Senate Bill 1533 include two different approaches to letting cities adopt inclusionary housing policies that would increase the number of affordable units, along with new dedicated funding for important services. It is unconscionable that working families are being priced out of housing in Multnomah County, but it is happening every day. There is still time for the Legislature to act on these bills. Call your representative and let them know how important it is that they do so.

House Bill 4143 would give tenants more certainty by prohibiting rent increases in the first year and requiring a 90-day notice for a rent increase after that. These are important policies that will give immediate relief to many families and seniors who are struggling to make ends meet.

Another top priority is ensuring that our kids are healthy, which is why the county adopted one of the state’s first tobacco retail licensing ordinances last year. Now the Legislature is considering making that a statewide policy with Senate Bill 1559. The statewide approach would benefit all kids by making it much more difficult for them to access tobacco products, but the details are important; we are working to assure the final bill will create an effective licensure program. We will know later today whether SB 1559 will continue to move through the process.

The county is also working with legislative leaders to pass House Bill 4093, which would authorize a surcharge on parking and traffic violations in the county to help pay for the replacement of our unsafe central courthouse. This bill would apply throughout the state, giving cash-strapped counties the ability to raise resources to make sure these critical community buildings are safe and secure.

Multnomah County recently convened two public meetings to discuss public health concerns regarding cadmium and arsenic emissions from Portland glass producers. This morning the legislature held a well-attended hearing on these harmful emissions. You will find more information about the threat they pose in this newsletter. While there isn’t a bill to address this concern, legislators still need to hear from you about this important public health issue.

Sincerely,

Deborah Kafoury

Air quality open houses draw hundreds in Multnomah County

Earlier this month, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) reported unusually high levels of cadmium and arsenic in southeast Portland. The data showed the metals were above both short- and long-term benchmarks.

The findings drew widespread concern. With schools, community centers, local gardens and other public spaces nearby, news of the air pollutants raised questions about residents’ health and safety.

Multnomah County responded. This month, the Health Department convened two community meetings with Portland Public Schools (PPS). One meeting took place at Cleveland High School on Feb. 9, while another happened on Feb. 18 at the Tubman Building in north Portland. Video is available on the Feb. 9 and Feb. 18 community open houses.

Altogether, hundreds of concerned community members attended the meetings, which included panel experts from Multnomah County, DEQ, the Oregon Health Authority, the United States Forest Service, PPS and Neighbors for Clean Air.

With several agencies and government organizations responding to the air quality concerns, many have expressed confusion about each one's role. Here's what you need to know:

  • The Oregon Health Authority is the state health authority. They have health jurisdiction over this matter.

  • The Department of Environmental Quality is the regulatory authority. They are in charge of collecting information and enforcing the rules set forth by the Environmental Protection Agency.

  • Multnomah County is not a regulatory or health authority. Because the air quality concerns are taking place in Multnomah County, county officials have been responsible for organizing community meetings and helping to coordinate the OHA and DEQ.  

  • The United States Forest Service worked with the DEQ to gather the data which revealed high levels of heavy metals in our air. Forest Service representatives continue to attend meetings and share the results of their study.

Additional information:

  • On Feb. 18, Chair Deborah Kafoury voiced concerns over air quality in Multnomah County in a letter addressed to Oregon Governor Kate Brown.

  • Multnomah County, OHA and DEQ produced an FAQ summarizing what's happened so far and what steps to take moving forward.

  • Air pollutants may put gardens at risk for contamination. A fact sheet is available for those concerned about their gardens' safety.

Year-round family shelter opens doors in southeast Portland

Multnomah County now has its first year-round family shelter.

This February, Human Solutions executive director Andy Miller announced the opening of the Human Solutions Family Center in southeast Portland. Human Solutions bought and renovated the site, which was formerly home to the Black Cauldron strip club. The county pitched in a $300,000 loan for the building’s purchase and $400,000 for renovations.

The opening comes on the heels of an affordable housing crisis in Multnomah County that’s forcing more and more families to sleep outside. This winter, the number of families seeking shelter has ballooned to an average of 119 individuals each night--that’s 30 percent higher from the same time last year.

Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury has witnessed the spike in homelessness firsthand. After recently watching families waiting outside for overnight shelters to open their doors, Chair Kafoury resolved to include funding for a year-round shelter in the county's 2017 budget.

“I will never forget the sight of seeing children lined up outside the doors at 7 p.m. on a cold, wet night waiting to get into a warm place to do their homework and sleep in a bed for the night,” she said at the Feb. 1 opening ceremony.

With a capacity of up to 150 adults and children, the shelter will operate 24/7. Human Solutions staff will also provide families case management and housing assistance. In addition, the shelter features a kitchen, showers, laundry machines and a computer lab. [Read more]

Save the date: Feb. 27 Sellwood Bridge community celebration

After many years of planning and construction, Multnomah County's Sellwood Bridge Project is finally nearing completion. And now it's time to celebrate with two events: Feb. 25 goodbye to the old bridge and a Feb. 27 celebration of the new one.

On Thursday, Feb. 25, the Sellwood Bridge will permanently close to traffic at 7 p.m. Then, from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m., fans of the old Sellwood Bridge will have a chance to walk across it one last time.

Participants are expected to assemble at the east end of the bridge before the procession begins. They're encouraged to bring flashlights, electric candles and phone lights for the candlelight event.  

Afterwards, on Saturday, Feb. 27 everyone is invited to a community celebration recognizing the milestone from noon to 4 p.m. The free, family-friendly event will feature food vendors, retail and nonprofit booths. The opening ceremony and ribbon cutting will take place at 1 p.m., followed by a "Through the Decades" parade. For more information about parking and the parade route, refer to the event map.

Finally, on March 1, the new bridge will officially open to traffic while the old one is deconstructed.

In a recent letter to county employees, Multnomah County Chair Kafoury thanked staff and partners for the countless hours of dedicated to constructing the new bridge.

"I would be remiss not to thank the innovative and hardworking employees who made this new bridge a reality," Kafoury said. "This undertaking was nothing short of monumental, and I want to say thank you to the amazing county engineers, planners, administrators and bridge maintenance staff for their work in making our new, beautiful and safe bridge." [Read more]

County, city of Portland unveil new needle drop sites

This month, the Multnomah County Health Department and the city of Portland embarked on a 12-month pilot project aimed at reducing the number of discarded syringes in downtown Portland.

The goal of the project, known as "Healthy Streets," is to respond to an increase in heroin and other injection use in Portland. While syringe exchange programs have been successful, stigma, disability, and other privacy concerns have posed obstacles in the past.

Two secure disposal bins have been installed on the west waterfront under the Burnside Bridge and on the Eastbank Esplanade near Salmon Street. Multnomah County community health workers will also offer outreach to injection users, as well as a public awareness campaign to discourage opiate use.  [Read more]

Chair Kafoury meets, discusses priorities with African Youth and Community Organization members

As the county prepares its 2017 budget, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury has begun meeting with immigrant and refugee communities to ensure their needs are being met.

Earlier this month, Chair Kafoury gathered with community leaders and their families for dinner in a space belonging to African Youth and Community Organization (AYCO) in southeast Portland.

At the gathering, community members shared many concerns with the Chair. Chief among them was how the county can offer help with housing, disabilities and education.

For the Chair, the meeting underscored how important it is for the county to provide culturally-specific services.

"I came away more convinced than ever that we have to find ways to better connect families to our resources,” she said, "and support our immigrant and refugee communities so they get what they need to be healthy, stable and successful.” [Read more]

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