The rise of homelessness across America has hit cities like Medford particularly hard and is now one of the most significant problems facing Medford. Homelessness is a complex issue, its solution will only be found where federal, state, county, and municipal policies, market forces, and mental health issues. To address homelessness, we must first understand homelessness and break down each one of these components.
Unfortunately, state and federal policy-makers tie the hands of municipalities like Medford by forcing a one-size-fits-all approach. The Ninth Circuit decision Martin v. Boise ruled that cities are preventing from enforcing their own duly enacted ordinances unless those cities provide sufficient shelter for their homeless population. The Oregon Legislature codified and expanded upon these restrictions in 2021 with House Bills 3115 and 3124. In both cases, state and federal policy-makers used poorly or completely undefined language (for example, "shelter" is undefined!), resulting in lawsuits against cities just to determine what is required.
As such, many cities have taken an overly cautious approach. In cities like Los Angeles, this means that they are spending up to $837,000 per homeless person to house them. Medford cannot afford this kind of narrow-minded thinking. We cannot allow the federal or state governments to bully us into "solutions" that drain the public coffers and don't address or must less fix the problem. Instead, Medford must embrace an expansive definition of "shelter" that enables us and our partners to invest in innovative solutions to address the shelter shortage. This will help us get the homeless off the streets, and enable us to enforce our duly-enacted ordinances.
Outside of the shelter requirements, Martin v. Boise allows cities to enact reasonable time/place/manner (TPM) restrictions on public camping. Medford has already taken steps to enact some restrictions (for example, we prohibit public camping on the Greenway during fire season), but that is not enough. We must think holistically about our TPM restrictions, and make sure we are adopting policies that preserve the intended nature of our public spaces. For example, public sports parks are primarily intended for human recreation and enjoyment. This primary purpose is disrupted when we allow camping in these spaces.
Recent court cases have set a high bar on "reasonable," but make exceptions when using a comparative analysis, i.e., if a city provides an easily accessible way to camp, then it has more leeway to limit other forms of camping. As such, it's important that Medford create dedicated camping spaces so we can enact the proper restrictions on camping in other public spaces. Along with our city partners, we have to invest in adapting public property for the purpose of urban camping.
A bright spot in the policy sphere is our local efforts, like the Livability Team. This nationally recognized law enforcement team helps bridge the gap between enforcement and outreach, and has overseen a measurable reduction in the local region's homeless population. The efforts of Medford's Livability Team have expedited access to social services for the most vulnerable individuals, ensuring that they can quickly move into shelters and off the streets. The Livability Team deals with the entire gamut of homeless issues, and is connected to the region's many charitable and social organizations. Any real solution to homelessness requires continued investment in our Livability Team, and law enforcement in general.
Beyond direct policy effects, we need to recognize the role housing costs have played in exacerbating the homeless crisis. In the Rogue Valley, the cost of housing has skyrocketed by 35% in the just a few years. This has priced many residents out of their homes. Unfortunately, the simple solution (build more homes) is much, much more difficult than it seems. State land-use laws drastically restrict what we can do , and new overlay maps, like the wildland-urban interface (WUI) maps recently released by Salem, add even more hurdles that prevent building otherwise legal projects. Couple these issues with the COVID crisis and the Almeda fire, and it's a recipe for disaster for home affordability.
While Medford can't single-handedly change state laws, we can innovate within the bounds of state law to increase the local supply of housing. Medford can work with developers to expedite planning and permitting processes to turn a normally years-long process into one that takes only weeks or months. We can modify local building restrictions to make it easier for people to convert unused spaces or build ADUs (accessory dwelling units) like a guest house or mother-in-law suite on private property.
It can be tempting to seek state-sponsored "capital-A Affordable housing" assistance from the government. While this can be an important piece to creating more housing capacity, Medford needs more capacity at all levels of affordability. When the rent gap between market-rate housing and low-income housing is as large as it is in this region, low-income housing stops being a stepping stone and starts feeling more like a sink hole. Individuals and families who qualify for low-income housing cannot bridge the gap into market-rate housing without entering a dead-zone: they make too much money to get benefits, but not enough to afford non-subsidized services. This kind of dead-zone makes subsidized services a trap that prevent people from getting ahead. Instead, if we can build more low-cost market-rate dwellings, that will help bring down the market-rate rents, which will prevent dead-zones. As such, Medford must use the many municipal powers, such as taxing districts, bonding power, and fee waivers to help create an environment where low-cost market-rate housing construction can thrive.
Lastly, the role that mental health plays in bringing people to homelessness must be addressed. Unfortunately, one of the most consequential mental health issues facing the homeless today is drug addiction. The decriminalization of drugs (Measure 110) has fueled a rise in Medford's transient population and is a pronounced barrier to getting people back on their feet. However, thanks to efforts like the Livability Team, we can directly connect homeless people with much-needed services. By ensuring that a path to treatment is part of every engagement with a homeless individual, we can assist them in stopping the cycle of addiction and moving back into society.
Homelessness will be one of my top priorities as a City Councilor, and I will champion the following solutions:
- Support an expansive definition of "shelter" that enables the city and our partners to invest in innovative solutions to address the shortage.
- Enact time/place/manner restrictions that prevent public camping from interfering with the intended nature of our public spaces.
- Expand the Livability Team, giving them the resources to engage with every homeless person in Medford.
- Reduce red tape within the city bureaucracies to expedite the building process, and create more opportunities for new housing units.
- Leverage municipal authority (taxing districts, bonding power, fee waivers, etc) to incentivize low-cost market-rate housing.
- Coordinate improved mental health and addiction services that will enable those in need to receive appropriate to help them get back on their feet.