Monday, May 08, 2006

Erik Sten Interview: Part One

Envy is one of our baser emotions, one of the seven deadly sins. I don't know where mock envy falls, but a few weeks ago I got an email from Jennifer Yocum, Erik Sten's campaign manager for his Portland City Council re-election bid. Erik had read my writeup of time spent with Amanda Fritz, who seems to have liked the portrayal well enough to use our talk as the best link for her stand on the issues, and now he was mock-envious of she and I. Jennifer asked if I wanted to do a sitdown at Peet's in his NE hood, and I agreed. We spent about 75 minutes covering a range of topics, letting Erik talk freely about things like PDC's overreach, Fire Station One, schools, the tram, and of the course the Water Bureau and VOE.

I've transcribed the recording faithfully, and so as a result you may get more direct quotation that you're used to. I'll edit from passage to passage to shorten the quotations, but what you do see written is nearly verbatim (minus the "uh"s and whatnot). One other thing to mention is that when I agreed to the gig, I said that he might be surprised at who torridjoe turned out to be. I have an indirect professional relationship with Erik, resulting in our crossing paths fewer than 5 times and speaking perhaps twice. I don't owe him anything, there is nothing riding on anything I should ever write about him (for me, anyway), and I don't feel hampered in the least to take a critical point of view when necessary about how he's done his job.

With that, place yourself now sitting on a corner of NE Broadway drinking the ubiquitous caffeinated paper cup of something, talking over the delivery traffic and street noise. Sten looks like Sten, clean and neat but a touch rumpled; I didn't note his fashion or what kind of coffee he got, if you're into that kind of Oprah detail. I dropped right into the questions:

*How has the campaign been this term compared to last? You've changed bureaus, had successes and problems in both terms, in good economic times and bad. Do you feel under more pressure this campaign season?
It's a real race. In a way it's real energizing, because it forces discussion. We're doing a lot of organizing. We're not getting all those endorsements because we're kicking back and not talking to anyone; we're out there talking to everyone. I think we're putting together a great coalition. So for me it's a little bit of a Dickensesque, "best of times, worst of times" campaign in the sense that the organizing is really fun, and I think it bodes well for the future...but the debates are a little tiresome. It's the first time that...
Here I commit the only sin perhaps deadlier than envy: cell phone call. I interrupt Sten to answer, pleading mercy since it's my wife. Sten says, "I always pick up my wife, and tell her, 'I'll call you right back'...but I always pick it up." Back on track, I press the question.

*I asked about pressure because it seems like it's been an intense 8-12 months for the Council. Credible opposition may have come without it, but it seems that the controversies have fueled opposition to you and the growth of other candidates. Do you feel more closely watched, held to tighter scrutiny?
There's no doubt about it. I'm really enjoying working with this particular council. The four people I'm working with are all really good. I'm much more with Randy Leonard's argument of a couple weeks ago--The Oregonian tried to make it like the City's not working because there's a lot of fractious things going on. His answer was essentially, "No, look--things are being aired out, you know where the disputes are." I'm much closer to where he is; I think it's working well.

But it's definitely been...y'know, I'll be happy when we get through with the primary election. I'm campaigning morning to night and working, and work is very busy, and I've got a two year old at home. But I think this budget that we've put forward, there will be some arguments around the edges, but I think it's a really good one. There's an enormous focus on economic development through environmental technology, and we actually put the money into OSD [Office of Sustainable Development] instead of PDC [Portland Development Commission]. I love that. It's a message to PDC--we're not going to stop working with them, but that was Randy's and my proposal we put together after reviewing the Economic Development Department's budget and OSD's budget, and we decided to give our expanded development money to OSD.
Sten definitely likes the process stuff, and he has high command of it. The word sounds a little unkind, but he's skilled at posturing: choosing an ultimate position or pathway after maneuvering between the interested constituencies and the give and take of five-vote decisions. As he talks about the state of PDC, he allows himself to get philosophical about it in the way that causes people to label him as the boy lost in a big ideas bubble. But this is what you're paying him to do, or at least what he does best. He may start out pie in the sky, but quickly boils things down to who gets the stick, and who gets the carrot. If Sten gets re-elected, PDC will start getting some smacks with the stick.
I'm going through a lot of intellectual and political thinking about PDC right now. I'm starting to believe some of the problems in PDC are actually apparent to the structure as opposed to the people. We've had a clean sweep at PDC, and not enough is changing. I would've ascribed more of the problems with the Burnside Bridgehead to the way that Don Mazzioti and Hennessey were running the operation.

I've introduced a resolution that Sam Adams is co-sponsoring next week that if it passes, will require 30% of all tax increment funds be spending on affordable housing from here on out. [ed: it did.] It's a huge change, $40 million a year or so to housing--that's what it could be in a big year. What really changed my thinking on the experience was South Waterfront. I was obviously really tied and allied with the affordable housing advocacy community, and for a couple years they've been arguing we should have a set-aside for housing from PDC. I've resisted it because it's a pretty arbitrary way to do public policy. I don't know if I like a set-aside.

I agreed several years ago that we would build affordable housing after the tram, greenway and streetcar, because you need to get those in first. But I wasn't thinking all those things would cost four times as much, and housing would be after the cost overrides. So once we paid all the cost overruns, there wasn't much left for housing. And then PDC came in and tried to essentially make a political strategy that I would be the third vote for the extra tram money if they put enough money into affordable housing. And I actually found that modestly offensive, because why should I have to trade a vote for something that we've already promised to do and is City policy? So that didn't work.

Then what happened is as part of the final deal that was actually passed on the tram, they gave a bunch of concessions to North Macadam investors so that the housing deal was somewhat worse than what they proposed on March 17th. And then they were going around spreading the story that it was my fault that the housing deal was worse because I didn't vote for the March 17th deal. And a chunk of that 2.5 million dollars that Homer put into the tram, he got back from the housing deal. I basically said "Enough of this. Housing is fundamental to an urban renewal district, so let's just try this a different way: from now on, this is the housing percentage, and you go from there."
*Enough process (for now anyway), let's talk about policy. What are you putting on the table for 2006? The best way to deflect carping over past decisions and balancing results, is to chart a compelling vision for the city. Do you have specific goals for your next term?
Assuming I win the election--I understand the PBA forked over another 10 grand yesterday [to Burdick, one presumes]. A PBA member told me that, so I'm pretty sure he was telling the truth...The short version is I think Portland's headed in a great direction if we take care of affordable housing, schools, and really come up with an economic development...that's a big if; I don't take those things for granted obviously. I think they'll probably go the wrong way without some more work. But really come up with an economic development business support strategy that both makes sense and fits with the community's values.

Some of this stuff about [me being] antibusiness is crazy. I've got tons of business support. But I'm anti "big business ripping us off." I think particularly in the Oregonian and the Tribune--which is why I love the alternative media like yourself [blush]--they've allowed Gard and Gerber and their crowd to paint a monopoly utility interest as a business interest.

I see a continued focus on environmental technology as a way to grow the economy. I'm spending a lot of time on the question of the Central Eastside. I'm pushing on PDC to say, can you get a router farm down there? I not an expert on the stuff, but I've asked the people what basic infrastructure might draw the Linux crowd and others to hub there.

I'll keep pushing hard on the affordable housing and education and environmental stuff--things that I think my track record is very solid on. I'll have another resolution next week--obviously I'm pushing stuff right now to show what I'm up to, no bones about that--it's actually challenging the city and the community to start a new project to attract a couple thousand more kids into the schools by better focusing our housing resources on the people on the bubble of home ownership. I've been looking at the school funding thing. And it's like, yeah, we're gonna need the property tax, no doubt about it. But we could actually go a long way if you could turn around the declining enrollment. If we could get 2,000 more kids--which seems to me to be an achievable goal into the schools, and housing's the key to that--it could take maybe a year. But I want to see us push through this 'we're anti-business' nonsense and have a thriving strategy.
Note where he warns me that he's about to flack for himself. Whether it's the reputation for being starry eyed, his concern for the homeless, or his enduring boyishness, the insinuations about Sten often reflect a derisive gee-whiz quality to them. But in truth Sten is unabashed about political realities. His performance at Candidates Gone Wild was a highly focused plan to have fun but never let the audience forget who he was running against. He may apologize for doing his own promos, but you'd better believe he's going to do them.

*It seems you're making homeless and housing advocacy the signature theme and achievement of your time on Council. Tell me about the 10 year plan, how it's funded, how it works, and what results you're getting.
It's a very cynical notion that the Bush administration has put forward. You're required to to have a 10-year plan to end homelessness in order to compete for the resources they're cutting. That's specifically why this is called a 10 year plan to end homelessness, because it's a federal requirement to keep our federal money.

But what we did is took a very cynical requirement and took it really seriously. [We] spent about 2 years with a whole level of different people looking at this--the classic heavy hitters, steering committee--down to technical groups on a bunch of issues that were meeting weekly. We basically came up with three cogent changes that would get better performance out of the system.

One is that the 2,000 chronically homeless people--which we defined as a year or more, which is arbitrary, but it's as good as any other number--are using 50% of the system's resources. So we spend about $36 million a year as a community on homelessness, and $18 million of that is on about the 20% of homelessness annually. It's obviously for me the right thing to do to get people on the street that long, off. But it's also the cost-effective thing to do. So that's one.

Two is really getting other folks coordinated better. A lot of how we've made progress is just basic stuff--getting key groups to meet weekly, tracking people better in a way that helps privacy. And there's there's also a notion called Housing First. What we've been doing as a community is moving more people more quickly into housing rather than into traditional stuff, with support around it.

The other big thing that's really important, and people will poo-pooh this, but this I believe as much if not more than anything: our homelessness responses have lacked enough attention to a person's self worth, their psychology, their spirit, whatever you might want to say. We commissioned Sisters of the Road to do 500 oral histories of chronically homeless people. Most of them are undereducated, many of them mentally ill, many of them substance abuse problems, all of them--no friends and family left. And so a lot of this has been to connect them to different things.

One of the things that are happening on this plan is that Providence Health Systems now pays Central City Concern an annual amount that's really nothing to them, about 50,000 bucks, but that's a lot to Central City Concern, and in return CCC guarantees that they'll always have an open room available when a chronically homeless person ends up in the emergency room.

There's thousands of people going to be homeless every year, I'm not saying gosh, Erik Sten has saved all those folks. The plan we've pushed has gotten 600 of the hardest cases off the street in one year, and for me that's an amazing accomplishment by the community. When you hear my speeches about it I mainly talk about the system doing it, not that I made it happen by myself.

Affordable housing is actually a structural economic problem in this country. I could go for an hour with this, but essentially you have a couple of things that are fundamental to it. The entire housing system is subsidized. And I'm all for it. What I'm all for is the mortgage deduction. But as long as you have 60% of the folks in a home ownership position getting a mortgage deduction, and a third of the money that goes into the mortgage deduction goes into low-income housing, you've got a structural problem. You're never going to solve housing and homelessness in this country until Congress addresses that--but meanwhile we've got to take it on here.
*How are you involving the core communities in that plan, and what decision making power do they have for their own neighborhoods regarding where and what kind of housing exists around them?
Particularly Old Town has been, with different representatives, heavily represented in everything we're doing. We have an ongoing oversight committee, and [Old Town NA Chair] Howard Wiener is the business guy that's volunteered with his peers' permission to take it on. But here's the interesting thing: I think we have a rare opportunity to have a major improvement in social services, because the area is redeveloping. A lot of the facilities are shabby and in the wrong place. One of my claims to fame was in 1996, when I was working for Gretchen I very calculatedly put the temporary homeless shelter in the middle of the River District, at the horse barn. And that led to us getting two new homeless shelters in other locations. It's a good strategy.
Here again, he's actually quite proud of his tactical victory. I was left wondering, how did the River District people feel having their NIMBY button pushed? Erik was a little breezy in his dismissal:
Everything's all situational, and you try to balance things. I'm not saying people who don't like new development and don't like yuppie kind of stuff should love it, but there are some elements that I'm really proud of that I don't think people know. There's 1,000 units that are very affordable in the River District, and it's not well known. If you go to where the old Burger King was on Burnside there's a huge building behind there that everyone assumes is very expensive condos, because that's what it looks like. It's 184 units for people coming off the street into recovery. Heroin and meth addicts live there who have a clean and sober community. After that thing had been open for a year, Mark Edlin [the big developer with Gerder Edlin, said he'll be damned if the North Park Blocks aren't actually now safer, because you've got clean and sober people living there, who are actually pretty good at knowing who shouldn't be there.

For years I've believed that we need a day space for homeless people downtown. For years and years the Old Town business community has resisted it, because they've said that's gonna draw people here during the day. Right now the Old Town business group actually says "We were wrong on that." Because what happens is the shelters and the food kitchens clear out at 730 AM, and everyone's put on the street. And it would be much better for business, let alone the homeless people, if they had a place they could go get a shower during the day. I think we can actually pull that off in the next round. The one thing that's good about Old Town...even I'm not looking to put a lot more facilities into Old Town. It's fairly saturated; I'm looking to keep what's there, so we're not in that argument. We're proposing upgrading things.
*Amanda Fritz is making community involvement a centerpiece of HER campaign; really by sheer luck of geography, passions and maybe your vote for clean candidate financing, she's not running against you. I asked it about in context of your homelessness efforts, but Fritz's sense is that there is a widespread call for more REAL local effectiveness when it comes to decisions that affect them. Examples: Downtown NA for Transit Mall, Lair Hill for the tram. Do you agree that community groups have basically hectoring access but no real influence on policy?
I'm probably somewhere more to the side defending that they have some power than Amanda, but I wouldn't argue the basic thesis. If you define power as ultimately winning the big battles, then what she's saying is inarguable. If those are the examples, they lost them. The tram was one of the few that I've ever voted on where I said, "this is not a win-win." Usually you try to work for something, can we get something out of this that is relatively equal to their pain? A bunch of my colleagues at the time, some of whom aren't there anymore were kind of giving me speeches about, oh this is going to be good for the neighborhood--Jim [Francesconi] in particular. It got to me--I said I'm not going to give you the argument that I think this is a win for the neighborhood, I think it's a loss.

Here's why I think it's worth doing. I think compared to most big cities, the neighborhood thing, [they] probably wield a lot of power. But I do think that neighborhoods can be heard more in all those issues. I'm not going to argue that her basic premise is wrong.

[Part 2 coming Wednesday...]