PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — A well-known local organization is having trouble getting the doors open on its new shelter meant to help people with addiction and mental health problems. KOIN 6 News wanted to find out why the City of Portland does not make projects like it a priority in the permitting process.

Central City Concern is calling on the City of Portland to make it easier for organizations like them to help people and the crisis the city is facing.

“Frustrating? Incredibly. Yes. We already have staff hired. We have operational dollars waiting to be spent,” said Mercedes Elizalde, who was a CCC spokesperson at the time this situation was brought to the attention of KOIN 6 in Sept. 2022.

The Karibu Stabilization Program at SE Powell and 20th will specialize in the treatment of black adults who are at risk of “involvement with the criminal justice system and have behavioral health needs.”

Central City Concern initially applied for permits in Oct. 2021. It was supposed to be open in the spring of last year, but months of delays pushed the target date back to this April.

“It’s a great opportunity for the general public to understand how long it takes some of these services to get into place. And it’s also an opportunity to talk about when our elected officials tell us that something is a priority, there’s a process step that has to take place to change our procedures in our city to actually make things, priorities,” Elizalde said.

Elizalde said it is difficult to convert and upgrade buildings from commercial to residential shelter space under the city permitting process that requires property owners to deal with multiple bureaus, including development services, public works and the water and fire bureaus.

In the case of the Karibu Stabilization Program, a requirement with the sprinkler system is holding up the project. CCC says it wasn’t aware of the needed upgrade.

The city says CCC bares a lot of responsibility for being confused because it turned down a pre-application meeting where the sprinkler/plumbing issue could have been caught early. But CCC personnel didn’t think it qualified for that meeting.

Future permit process improvements

The City has talked a lot about improving the permitting system for construction in general. Commissioners Dan Ryan and Mingus Mapps collaborated on a permit improvement task force last year. That was a central topic during a Feb. 2 Portland City Council meeting, where the commissioners voted on a strategic plan to transition to the new form of government passed by voters in November.

“Over the course of these next two years, council will continue to work with the bureaus to better integrate with city services,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said.

As part of that process, Commissioners began with a 90-day action plan. Much of the discussion was about revamping the permitting process to expedite housing.

“Portland’s permitting system has been broken for decades. That’s why I formed the permit improvement task force,” said Commissioner Dan Ryan.

“We will also assess the impact of city policy and regulations that drive the cost of building housing in Portland,” added Commissioner Carmen Rubio.

What’s still unclear is whether there will be specific changes to help non-profits get badly needed brick-and-mortar shelters and treatment centers open — KOIN 6 has asked each commissioner for clarification.

In a statement Rubio’s office didn’t directly answer the question, saying; “The entire city council is invested in advancing actions to improve permitting services, making it simpler, faster and less expensive to secure city permits. I have directed the bureau of planning and sustainability to review any holdups so that more projects can keep moving.”

“It just feels like we’re kind of in an existing process rather than a prioritized process. So, we’re hearing from everybody in the different bureaus and the different commissioner’s offices that this is a priority and I absolutely believe them. I know that they believe that this is a priority. Really the struggle is how do we change our processes to show that this is a priority, to make it a priority on the ground,” Elizalde added.

The city has engaged in recent policies to expedite the opening of shelters, but most have impacted non-brick-and-mortar facilities.

In Feb. 2022, the mayor declared an emergency to make it easier to find sites for Safe Rest Villages. In April 2021, new zoning codes went into effect to make outdoor shelters easier to open. But they didn’t affect brick-and-mortar buildings. In October, the mayor announced proposals to fast-track diversion programs from the legal system for low-level crimes.