City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly threatened to end city support and recognition of a North Portland neighborhood association if it were to bar homeless people from membership. At a time when inclusion of the houseless is a powerful and popular theme, insisting that all individuals be granted full membership in the community may not seem out of line.
But it’s not as simple as that. There is no practical way to verify that a person without a mailing address actually lives in a given neighborhood. Anyone rich or poor seeking to influence a neighborhood election could simply say they have no home and thereby escape further scrutiny.
There is also something highly peculiar about the situation in the Overlook neighborhood in that the association is negotiating a good neighbor agreement with Hazelnut Grove, a city-sanctioned homeless camp in the district. The association and camp are on opposite sides of the talks, yet by making camp residents also association members, campers can advocate for their interests simultaneously through both organizations.
That’s exactly what happened at an Overlook Neighborhood Association meeting last month. Members voted 48-39 to reject terms opposed by camp members. Campers voted in numbers likely to have tipped the result in their favor. That defies basic logic. Representing two opposing sides at once is a textbook example of conflict of interest.
Yet Eudaly had no problem with that. In a Facebook exchange, she focused on “underhanded” and “last-minute” dealings, unaware that association rules allowing members to make motions from the floor make prior notice impossible.
The bigger question is: Why is the commissioner in charge of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement “tweeting” on hyperlocal procedural policies she doesn’t understand? This is the kind of behavior we’ve come to expect from our president, but it hardly meets the Portland standard of civility.
Going to the mats over the right of homeless people to join neighborhood associations may be an effective tactic to discredit associations. It puts them in a no-win dilemma. Denying the homeless a voice in grass-roots democracy seems harsh and unfeeling, recalling the days of aristocratic landowners denying workers, women and “social inferiors” the franchise.
On the other hand, granting voting rights to homeless people (or to anyone not required to provide proof of a neighborhood connection) violates customary neighborhood association practices designed to ensure fair practices. The standard for verifying membership was tightened for inner Westside neighborhood associations about 25 years ago after the Multnomah Athletic Club ran its employees for Goose Hollow Foothills League board positions. The club seemed to have succeeded—until a challenge was raised and the results overturned on the advice of legal counsel. Now businesses can designate one representative, thwarting the possibility that a large employer could control a neighborhood association.
As commissioner of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, Eudaly can pit neighborhood associations versus homeless people and pick the winner. There is no doubt where her sympathies lie. I sense the rest of City Council would take her side.
Tina Kotek, speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives, labeled neighborhood associations NIMBYs and racists for opposing her bill to strip the powers of neighborhood plans to limit housing development. Although it would have nullified complex local agreements crafted to address unique situations, no Portland city commissioner said a word in defense of local control.
The political tides are not sympathetic to Portland neighborhood associations now, and the politicians are piling on. The city has turned neighborhood associations into rule-writing, rule-following, rule-oriented bodies increasingly unable to marshal public opinion or exert political power. It should be no surprise they can so easily be tripped up by city officials acting as the final arbiter of their internal operating procedures.