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Bend council grapples with issues of a growing city


The Bend City Council grappled with the growing pains of a once-small city in several areas Wednesday night, from a plea for a big utility fee hike to fix access for the disabled to lingering issues with downtown loitering and panhandling, and residents of two neighborhoods – one east, one west – worried about plans to turn small, long-time open spaces into affordable housing.

Odds are, no one left City Hall very satisfied – as is often the case – despite what the city leaders see as serious, ongoing efforts to deal with disabled access, affordable housing and the long-standing issue of downtown vagrancy, drug abuse and loitering that some believe is only getting worse, with intimidated shoppers staying away and costing them business.

On the downtown issues, Bend Police Chief Jim Porter and Sgt. Dan Ritchie joined city Business Advocate Carolyn Eagan and Rod Porsche of the Downtown Bend Business Association to lay out the challenges, both day and night.

They also noted that loitering is not illegal and even has been found to be constitutionally protected, as has “non-aggressive” panhandling, tying many communities’ hands on how much can be done.

The affordable housing and cost-of-living issues also is having an impact on the issue; Porter noted that “recruiting challenges” have led to some staffing shortages in the department, hampering the efforts at stepped-up downtown patrols.

A citizen panel looking at one particular issue – panhandling – is recommending the city curtail it “in a respectful, positive, constitutional and creative way” – a tall order.

Improving the downtown atmosphere can’t come soon enough for five-year downtown business owner Jennifer Steigman, who told councilors she gets “a lot of comments from locals and customers who don’t feel safe. … Every day, I see drug deals or people doing drugs. We have customers whose cars have been broken into in the middle of the day. The feedback we get from customers and locals is that the issues are getting worse.”

Steigman, who sits on the DBBA board, said they want to see downtown thrive and told councilors they “recognize your hands are tied on certain things.” She suggested perhaps “taking it to the state level, to get the loitering laws changed, so we can resolve what’s going on.”

Then there’s marijuana – more specifically, a likely November vote in Bend, like several other Oregon cities, on whether to enact a state-allowed 3 percent retail tax on recreational marijuana sales. Very initial estimates based on state revenue for its temporary 25 percent tax – dropping to 17 percent – that could bring Bend $345,000 a year.

Because it’s so uncertain, Bend may do as others have and seek voter approval while waiting to see the actual numbers before deciding how to spend any such revenues.

ADA: Proposed utility fee boost sparks debate

On the ADA issue – which the city has wrestled with and been scrutinized over for many years – Accessibility Manager Karin Morris and Rory Rowan, the city’s new multimodal transportation engineer, laid out how much curb ramp and sidewalk work has been done in recent years, both through capital improvement projects and through an accessibility fund with dedicated revenue. The city plans to fix hundreds of curb ramps and more than seven miles of sidewalks over the next three years.

But that falls way short for Brian Douglass, chief advocate of Advocates for Disabled Americans Inc., and two women who joined him Wednesday, including Brittany Peterson, 20, who has cerebral palsy and spoke with computer assistance from her wheelchair of the challenges faced in getting around Bend for many.

Douglass – one of four disabled Bend residents who sued the city 15 years ago and got the U.S. Department of Justice to demand improvements – takes issue with the city’s claim that it was released from the obligations in a 2014 settlement.

Douglass wants the city to put a surcharge on water and sewer bills, starting at $5 a month and capped at $15,50, to come up with $100 million that he said is needed to fix the city’s backlog of 5,400 curb ramps and, by his estimate, 1.6 million linear square feet of sidewalks.

As a supplement to offset that, he suggested 7.5 percent taxes on entertainment, food and beverages, community event registration and other events or conventions – but for visitors only, much like Washington’s sales tax is waived for Oregonians who can show their residency at the register.

Douglass acknowledged that “$100 million is a lot – but if 26 years ago (when the ADA became federal law) the city had listened to advocates and done what’s required under the law, we wouldn’t be here today in this position.”

Councilor Douglas Knight replied, “I don’t believe the city has skirted its responsibility.” But Douglass insisted it had, and that unlike other issues the city faces, this one is a matter of civil rights.

“This creative proposal we have given to you on two occasions gives you the opportunity to stand up and make a vote for the civil rights of disabled citizens of this community that have been trampled upon for 26 years, locking people away in their homes.”

“I’m not going to be characterized as trampling rights,” Knight said, noting he had been the one who proposed increasing barrier removal funding to $900,000 in the latest budget.

But Douglass said at that rate, “You’re not going to get the job done for 30 or 40 years. … You can solve the problem. You can solve the problem now. We’re not going to wait much longer than that.” (The amended funding proposal his group submitted mentions the possibility of litigation.)

Councilor Sally Russell told Douglass, “It’s difficult when someone comes and threatens you.” Despite “some very heated discussions about a lot of different needs,” Russell said the city has “made a lot of strides” on disabled access in her time on the council.

And referring to the gas tax thumped by voters, Russell said, “It was very clear in March of the year – like it, love it, hate it – we do have a community very sensitive to any increase” in fees or taxes.

“I want to make it really clear that we do have an agreement with the Department of Justice,” she said. “We do have a plan. We have gone beyond the bare basics. … My place as a responsible councilor is serving the entire community, with limited funds. … I am not going to support taking this program as presented to the council.”

Douglass said, “Climate change, streets, sewer, water – none of those are civil rights. This is a civil rights issue, and you’re in violation of federal law. This city has been for 26 years.”

Affordable housing: ‘Sometimes, sacrifices have to be made’

As for the affordable housing issue, here’s a city news release issued Wednesday night that outlines what the council approved and the city has done to try to help make more such housing happen:

OnJuly 20, the City Council approved a number of actions that result in increased affordable housing supply in Bend. The City of Bend is the only city in Oregon that allocates this level of local revenue to affordable housing projects.

“All together these actions represent about $5 million worth of local contribution to affordable housing,” said Jim Long, Bend’s Affordable Housing Manager.

The Council onWednesday:

Approved $1.59 million in Affordable Housing Fund awards.
Sold City surplus property to Housing Works to build 25 units of affordable housing that will include a commercial component.
Sold City surplus property at 5 th and Dekalb to Central Oregon Veterans Outreach (COVO) to build eight units of affordable housing.
Approved $400,000 in System Development Charge (SDC) exemptions to help build 88 units.
Declared two additional properties as surplus. Those properties will be released through a request for proposal (RFP) process later this year.

The decisions made onWednesdaynight, which will help to construct up to 160 new units of affordable housing, are just the most recent of many actions taken by the Bend City Council to address a broadly accepted problem.

The city has two different funding programs that that aim to address the needs of low and moderate income people in Bend.

1) Affordable Housing Fund

Bend is the only City in Oregon that is allocating local funds to affordable housing projects through an affordable housing fee, which is a fee on building permits.

2)Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) federal funding

Affordable Housing Fund loans are often the first funding that comes into any affordable housing project. Developers use them to leverage other, additional necessary financing to build the housing units. This is typically a long process; some units that are being built now were seeded with affordable housing funds the City issued years ago.

A Consolidated Plan, developed in 2014 with considerable community input, has defined priorities for using both of those funds.

The Consolidated Plan prioritizes increasing the amount and availability of affordable rental units. Other goals in the plan include increasing homeless shelter units, providing services to the homeless population, removing architectural barriers in public infrastructure and affordable housing development, providing support to necessary public services and employment training and economic development.

The City is required to have an affordable housing public advisory committee to help decide where the CDBG grant money goes. The city also directs the Affordable Housing Fund to the same programs. (More about the city’s affordable housing programs can be found

In addition to allocating funds to build housing units, over the last 24 months the City Council has adopted recommendations from the city’s Affordable Housing Advisory Committee regarding additional tools to reduce identified barriers. These include:

Expedited review and permitting for affordable housing projects. (Based on the City’s Affordable Housing Advisory Committee recommendations which also advised the City to make it easier to build accessory dwelling units and to provide a density bonus.)
Low-income rental housing property tax exemptions.
SDC exemptions for affordable housing projects.
Identifying and using surplus properties for affordable housing.

“The city understands that the affordable housing situation is worsening. It’s a council goal to continue to explore affordable housing strategies,” said Long.

But the issues can be challenging when it comes to “infill” projects in established neighborhoods, on pieces of land formerly deemed unbuildable or considered somewhat permanent open spaces or informal parks over the decades.

Despite those concerns, the council did take the first step — declaring two parcels of surplus city-owned property, one nearly two acres near Northeast Ninth Street, between Glenwood Drive and Alden Avenue, and a less than quarter-acre parcel near the corner of 17 th Street and Hartford Avenue on the city’s Westside.

The Eastside site has the Coyner Trail running through it, near Bear Creek Elementary School. Though it’s very early in the process, many residents said they couldn’t see how much of the parcel could be built upon, some without coming very close to their homes or causing other access or traffic issues.

But Scott Rohrer, executive director of Bend Area Habitat for Humanity, said the problem they (and others) face in meeting the need is when it comes to buildable land, “All the easy land has been taken.”

“If we want to continue the fight against the affordable housing crisis, we’re going to have to deal with difficult land – that’s all we have,” he said.

On the Westside, residents spoke of children and grandchildren playing in the area, even feeding the neighborhood bunny, “Bun-Bun.”

Faced with such emotional testimony about fears of a loss in livability, Rohrer at one point said, “Sometimes I hate my job.” But he added that to address the tough issues, “Sometimes, sacrifices have to be made.”

He pointed out that the last time they sought housing applicants, 60 families applied for just six spots.

“For us, one lot means the world for a family” needing a home, he said.

Russell said it can leave the city and council in an awkward spot: “If we didn’t own this land, we wouldn’t have much say” in whether it would be developed. “Everyone has a different viewpoint of how this property could be developed, but we don’t have the vision in front of us,” at this early stage, she said.

Another council and public process will come later as proposals for development are received and reviewed. But with so many people struggling to find or keep housing, Russell said, “We have to be as aggressive as we possibly can. So it’s a dance.”

Mayor Jim Clinton said, “I’m also sort of gagging at getting rid of all of our empty lots around town. We sort of get caught between a rock and a hard place.”

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