A Portland City Council committee will discuss Tuesday whether the city can – and should – enact a moratorium to prevent any new emergency shelters from opening before new licensing standards can be finalized.

The item is being discussed at the request of the association that represents the Bayside neighborhood, an area that contains the highest concentration of shelter beds and social services in the city. No councilor has endorsed the proposal, though several have expressed a willingness to discuss it.

But the idea was met with concern from the executive director of a nonprofit social service agency, who urged unity in responding to the needs of residents struggling during the pandemic.

City Councilor Tae Chong said the Health and Human Services & Public Safety Committee, which he chairs, will not take any formal action Tuesday, adding that a memo from the city attorney’s office outlining the legal thresholds for enacting a moratorium was requested at a previous meeting by other committee members.

City Councilor Mark Dion broached the subject during the committee’s March meeting, saying he had received a “significant amount of email” about a possible moratorium in Bayside. Such a proposal could be a way, he said, “to concede that they have shouldered a significant burden for years to date and we would acknowledge that and move forward from there.”

“The proposition might have merit and we need to explore it,” Dion said. “My mind is open on it, that’s why I raised it.”

During last month’s meeting, both Mayor Kate Snyder and City Councilor Belinda Ray, who represents the neighborhood, were supportive of at least exploring the idea.

“I do think the request for a moratorium in the Bayside neighborhood is important to discuss,” Snyder said. 

The discussion comes as the city is seeking proposals from developers to build a new, roughly 200-bed homeless services center on Riverside Street, and as the council works in the coming weeks toward drafting an annual licensing framework for emergency shelters in the city. Some city officials have actively sought to break up the cluster of social services in Bayside, saying the high concentration of clients makes the area vulnerable to drug dealers, human traffickers and other bad actors.

It also comes three months after the city’s Planning Board approved a new 40-bed overnight shelter to be operated by the nonprofit social services agency Preble Street in Bayside, and as new residential and commercial developments continue to move forward in the neighborhood.

Sarah Michniewicz, president of the Bayside Neighborhood Association, urged councilors to consider a moratorium in the neighborhood to prevent another shelter from opening up before the committee finalizes and votes on a licensing framework for emergency shelters. She noted that shelters could still open in other parts of the city.

“Portland is on the cusp of finally creating a thoughtful and intentional shelter system,” Michniewicz wrote. “Please ask the City Council to enact a moratorium on any new shelters in Bayside so that we can honestly assess the City’s role in addressing homelessness, and holistically decide how Portland’s shelter system can best fill that role.”

Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street, said Monday that he was not aware the committee was considering a moratorium on emergency shelters. A moratorium “makes no sense,” he said, especially since nearly 700 people are currently staying in hotels temporarily during the pandemic.

Swann said he doubts any nonprofits are clamoring to open new shelters, especially since getting approval is difficult, funding is virtually non-existent and the work itself is very demanding.

“It seems to me that now is the time for all of us to be working together to support new shelter developments, working with nonprofits, the City and the State to meet the needs,” he said. “It’s not the time to slow those efforts down. We are still in a pandemic, after all. And the state of our economy, the numbers of people unemployed, and the ungodly cost of housing will only add pressure to already-crowded shelters and emergency food programs.”

Anne Torregrossa, a city attorney, said in a memo to the committee that moratoriums can impact development permits or licenses.

“A moratorium on any site plan, building permit, or change of use for a new or expanding emergency shelter would certainly meet this requirement, if that is how the Committee and Council decide to draft the moratorium,” Torregrossa said.

A moratorium would have to meet at least one of two standards, she said. It must be needed either to prevent a shortage or overburdening of public facilities, and/or if existing comprehensive plans, land use ordinances or other rules are inadequate to prevent serious public harm from residential, commercial or industrial development in a specific area.

Torregrossa said the committee would need to articulate its reasons in case it’s challenged in court. She said the state’s supreme court has upheld moratoriums in the past based on concerns about additional demand for police, fire and rescue services based on a higher population density.

“Once the Council makes these findings, any court would be extremely deferential to those findings if the moratorium was ever challenged,” she said.

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