Sam Chase is seeking City of Portland Commissioner, Position No. 2 on city council in this month’s election. He’s looking to apply what he brought to Metro to the City of Portland, and he is one of the city council candidates most focused on housing and homelessness. This is the third interview I’ve done in this city council election cycle, and here are the others.
How does your experience working with Metro inform your view of Portland, and what might people in inner Portland not understand about the surrounding connected areas?
Well the reason I ran for Metro was really to identify that Metro needed to address poverty and equity as part of its growth strategy. That’s one of Metro’s main charges, is addressing growth, and if you don’t address poverty and equity, you really can’t make sure that everybody’s having access to jobs and the quality of life that our region provides. I’m a big believer in working regionally and developing a regional economy and regional livability.
One of the tools that we know works to address poverty is jobs. Living wage jobs are critical. Also, affordable housing is something we know is a tool that works. So that’s what I’ve pushed forward at Metro and have been, frankly, more successful than I ever thought I’d be at getting affordable housing on the agenda at Metro and not just getting the affordable housing bond measure passed in 2018, but in getting all of the jurisdictions in cities and counties. Portland can’t solve the region’s housing crisis on its own, and getting those jurisdictions that were a little bit stiffer from their opposition only ten years ago to really turn around and say, “we want to be a part of the solution. We’re going to support an initiative going to the ballot. We’re going to make sure that you don’t tax our jurisdictions and spend it all in Portland, but you’re going to build affordable housing here in Hillsboro and Beaverton and Clackamas County.” That was a game-changer, and I think that is really very positive for Portland because it creates that shared responsibility to make sure that everybody’s being taken care of. I think that gets underappreciated in terms of setting a framework on how we address this long-term challenge that we have. Now we have the homeless service initiative going forward. I opened the door to having that initiative move forward. I think we have a framework now that’s in place, and now Portland can really focus on making sure that with the resources that we have that we’re spending them with a lot of transparency, oversight, and accountability and really getting as much value as we can for every dollar that we spend on housing and homelessness.
I’m hearing all of that and looking at your housing and houselessness platform. What will it take this from an idea and goal list to a reality?
Have you read the book Evicted? One of the things Matthew Desmond talks about is boring solutions are sometimes good solutions. I agree with him actually. We try to get really fancy with financing and magical solutions, and they end up complicating the system tremendously. Sort of a framework is we do have to have a whole bunch of components move forward, but we also need to be keeping an eye on “how do we keep things simple?” and moving forward a whole comprehensive system. There are a few pieces I think are really important. One is addressing the cost of housing and what it takes to get housing built and not just subsidized. We can’t subsidize our way out of the affordable housing crisis. I’ve been the biggest advocate, probably in the state, in terms of advocating for resources for housing and winning them, but we aren’t going to subsidize our way out. We have to also drive down the cost of getting the supply and find strategies that will help build the supply of housing. Every year, our population grows twenty percent more than the housing we’re creating for that population. So every year, it’s getting more and more challenging at the same time we’re trying to make sure we have resources for the very low income, populations that the market is just not going to build housing for.
So how do we make it more affordable? Getting residential infill and doing it right is a solution for that where the market can help us. There are some real permitting, zoning, and building code issues that we can address. There are places where we can set the table. I’ve been a big advocate for the Albina Vision, and the Albina area to really say, “we have to develop that area in a way that creates an infrastructure for residential.” It’s already got a lot of infrastructure, and so it just makes sense to turn that more commercial infrastructure into a 24-hour community and use that infrastructure to build out and create more density in residential that fits into our city’s core and doesn’t put undue pressure on neighborhoods in how we’re creating some infill.
Until we have affordable housing for everyone, we need to make sure the folks that need that housing most are getting into it. That may not always be the folks who are mentally and physically fit to get on the waiting list at 7:00 am on Tuesday morning out in front of a certain building. It may that folks who don’t have the ability to identify and physically be in those locations are the ones that need to be on that list. The system that I would like to build out to coordinate and help score and create a waitlist to get the right folks into the right kind of housing, make sure we’re using it as efficiently as possible.
Identifying the cost of construction and the types of units that we’re building with the subsidy dollars that we have is another area. The financing strategies that we’re using to build housing is another one where we can better spend the subsidy dollars we have when we’re building a shelter and affordable residential.
Do you think our city commissioner form of government is working, or do you think Portland needs charter reform?
Absolutely needs reform. It’s a system dependent on someone who maybe has zero experience in a certain area all the sudden being in charge of administering the bureau of environmental services or the water bureau or whatever it is. The elected official should be focused on policymaking. I’ve worked in both systems; I’ve worked at the city. I understand how that system works, and I’m ready to jump in and move the agenda I’m talking about forward quickly. I’ve also worked at Metro, and now I’m in my eighth year. I’ve seen how a centralized form with districts where you have district representation, a central manager, more collaboration, and transparency in the work that’s happening. Sometimes it makes it more difficult to get some things through, but it also requires getting your colleagues on board. That’s good for the long-term system.
I was the only person at Metro who wanted an affordable housing agenda when I first arrived, and I was able to convince all my colleagues, the agency, and the jurisdictions that are part of the region to move forward on affordable housing strategy. I was also the only voice pushing for reducing low-income fares and transit fares for two years before I was able to persuade Metro, Trimet, and other partners to put a low-income fare program in place. You can really get big things done in that system, and I think you get them done in a more effective way long term. I’m a big fan of restructuring, and I think this time we’re actually going to win it.
I want to partner with City Club, a public-private partnership where we are working with the community to bring the community along. It’s not something three people are cooking up a measure and putting it on the ballot. It’s a collaborative process that’s transparent, and the community’s learning together. We’re coming up with the best process of putting that out to voters, and we’re changing it once and for all. I’ve had a lot of success getting measures on the ballot and passing them. I want to see that happen, and I think I’ll be able to add a lot of value to that process to putting something in front of votes that feels comprehensive and transparent.
Why was our parks department struggling during a time of economic growth? How potentially could the parks department get better if we go into a weaker economy?
It’s a really good question, and the way you framed it is important too. I think we need to complete the assessment that Nick Fish, Parks Foundation, and others started to identify what are the priority areas that we need to see moving forward long-term in our parks system and what are the long-term costs and develop a sustainable system including looking at something like Tualatin Parks and Recreation where they have a sustained funding source that answers the question about what the budget is going to do, not dependent on the ups and downs of city council’s priorities.
One option we have to look carefully at, of course, we had the same challenge at Metro where we had the capital investment of acquiring 17,000 acres of open space, natural areas, and parks. We put forward a levee proposal for the region that passed in Multnomah County and Clackamas and Washington counties too with a more conservative population. Having that interaction with voters and letting voters have a say is one long-term solution. I don’t think it’s one we can take on right now, but I think it’s one we have to have as part of the equation. It’s also paired with knowing what our priorities are around parks and recreation. Do we want to move more towards the experience with nature and open space, and are there some interactions with our parks and recreation that are less cost intensive?
Metro just passed a—I was a champion for this—bond measure in November. There are significant resources in that bond measure. We need to make sure Portland is accessing those resources. The suburbs do an excellent job of tapping into those resources, and we need to do a better job in Portland. Things like Willamette Cove, where Metro has a property that is on the river in North Portland, an underserved area, that is a brownfield that it’s been sitting on for twenty-five years. We need to protect our investment, and I’ll take responsibility. I currently am Metro. We need to put pressure on Metro to clean up that area and make it accessible and use Metro’s operating funds to make sure it’s maintained. We need to use Metro’s resources to depave some of that concrete in the area east of the Willamette that is significantly under greened. We need to regreen. Sometimes it’s tree canopy; sometimes it’s other indigenous plantings that don’t require a lot of watering and outside intervention. Those are resources we can put in that are already available that we can leverage.
(Sam clarified for me that Tualatin has its own parks service district similar to a school district or library system.)
You’re endorsed by Portland Clean Air. What are your ideas for improving air quality?
Clean air is a thing I’ve worked on a lot. We have incredible diesel particulate problem still. It’s most affecting low-income communities and communities of color. There are a number of things that need to happen. One is with vehicles and addressing diesel emissions from vehicles. Another place the city can have a direct impact is on construction equipment. Construction is an area with a tremendous amount of diesel particulate where dirty diesel is still in play.
Metro put forward—I championed this—a very aggressive approach to regulating diesel construction equipment that will also impact anything we fund through transportation projects, and that includes ODOT projects if we have any funding in it. This addresses equity because a lot of small contractors and emerging contractors that are run by people from communities of color or women-owned contractors need support to be able to pay for their projects. Support systems that help them transition or access that’s not dirty diesel—that’s a place where the city can step up and be aggressive as Metro has been.
What can the city of Portland do to have a more effective police bureau?
I really appreciate and elevate what’s happening in Lents with the Portland Street Response, and that’s a concept that I’ve been advocating for a long time, and I think it’s starting to build momentum. The first responders in many cases should not be police. When we have folks struggling with substance abuse or mental illness, there are folks who are far more effective in engaging with those folks and get much better results. Portland Street Response sends medics and people who are much more effective at engaging creating with a relationship and communicating with folks and don’t bring a fear factor right away and don’t create unnecessary conflict in the interaction and they have a really good relationship with the police and they’re able to call in the police when there’s a safety issue in play. It’s a more affordable way to approach the community, in particular folks struggling with homelessness. It’s more effective in outcomes.
We absolutely need oversight. Any police conduct that’s inappropriate or unlawful, we have to act. We also need to set up systems to avoid those conflicts in the first place.
How do you think your platform might especially appeal to people living east of 82nd?
My approach at Metro has been to focus on delivering services in underserved areas with a belief that everyone benefits when we do that. APANO has endorsed me in this race because I’ve insisted that we address culturally-specific cumulative needs and bring the community into the process because we need folks with those experiences in our decision making. We have to empower those communities in the decision-making process to really get the results that we want. When we do, everyone wins.
For example, with transportation, it’s about making sure we’re serving people around transit frequency around the number of routes, making sure there are safe crosswalks, implementing vision zero, but also making sure we’re doing it equitably. One of the things I’ve been concerned about is speed cameras, for example. They’re really effective, and they do save lives. We also need to understand that those things generating two-hundred bucks a ticket, and that helps with revenue. That also can be devastating for someone who is barely making minimum wage. We need to right size the justice side of that, which is making sure there are alternatives to these enormous fines for some folks.
Delivering services we need out east helps benefit everyone in our community, and I’ve been a big champion of that, and I think it’s because it serves all of us when we do that.
You have four children. How does your role as a father and having kids in Portland inform your policy or inspire your passion for local government?
I think a lot about what is it we’re doing for future generations and how we’re setting up success for future generations. I see at the federal level how we’re spiraling into chaos, and it feels challenging. I think about what we can do on the local level, and I’ve always been an advocate for level. That’s why I’ve always focused my energy there. I feel like we can get incredible things done at the local level, and setting up things for our future generation feels personally really important to me.