Saturday, March 1, 2008

Jeff Bissonnette talks housing and homelessness

For the past nine years, Jeff Bissonnette has been a consumer advocate with the Citizens’ Utility Board of Oregon. He has also spent the past decade working a as a social service advocate to set up school breakfast programs and summer feeding programs for children.

He is a candidate for City Commissioner seat No. 1, being vacated by Sam Adams.

Street Roots: You talk about the need for the city’s education and technical training needs to keep up with the times, including post-high school education and lifelong training. How will you interface that with the low-income and homeless populations that are in particular need of workforce training opportunities?

Jeff Bissonnette: Very low-income and homeless people need particular attention when looking at work force training opportunities. First, we need to ensure that there are adequate support systems in place to help individuals and families maintain basic needs: housing services, substance abuse treatment and mental health treatment if needed, assistance to pay energy bills, nutrition programs in schools and community organizations to make sure children are well-nourished (and these programs also help to stretch household resources), good before- and after-school programs to keep kids out of trouble.

Second, we need to help individuals get a job that leads to a career and offers a future. I intend to advocate for a “green collar jobs program” modeled after a successful initiative in Oakland, California. The Ella Baker Center runs a “pathways from poverty” designed to get very low-income people started in jobs in the clean energy industry, such as making homes and commercial buildings more efficient, as well as installing and maintaining renewable energy systems. Education and on-the-job training are combined to make sure that people are supported in the first steps in an industry that is growing, providing living wage jobs. This effort will require the combined efforts of business, labor unions, community organizations and educational institutions to provide the opportunities for these new green collar workers.

S.R.: What can you do for Portland that the other candidates running for this position cannot?

J.B.: While every candidate in this race offers something to the people of Portland, I offer two things that others do not: 1) a long history of being the lead organizer of numerous diverse coalitions focused around common agendas and goals and 2) the ability, demonstrated repeatedly, to have those coalitions be able to move their agendas through a political process successfully emerging with an adopted law or policy. It is one thing to be involved in issues; it is another to consistently be the lead in keeping diverse interests together, coordinated and focused until the objective is achieved. That ability to get results and build relationships for “the next issue” is my stock-in-trade and something that I believe is unique in this race.

S.R.: How are you going to keep Portland affordable and livable for all citizens?

J.B.: Portlanders are rightfully concerned that our city is growing less affordable. Housing prices, while lower than other parts of the country, have been rising rapidly. Even with the recent cool-down, prices for both home purchases and rents are quite high.

Additionally, resources are not keeping pace with populations trends responding to changing neighborhoods. More and more, people are moving to East Portland neighborhoods in search of more affordable homes and business space and all too often, needed resources do not follow. I will work to better align neighborhood goals and needs with development efforts because improving an area should not mean that long-time residents should be required to move.

S.R.: How will you make a difference in the lives of the people living on the streets?

J.B.: The biggest difference that needs to be made in the lives of people living on the streets is to ensure that they do not have to live on the streets. We need to continue and expand our commitment to increase decent affordable housing. To do this, I will work with community development corporations (CDCs) to identify sites for rehabilitation and new housing projects. I will enforce the new requirement to have 30 percent of urban renewal funds to be set aside to fund affordable housing projects. I will also continue to work with the Affordable Housing NOW! Coalition to have the city meet and maintain a commitment of at least $30 million for Housing Investment. Lastly, I will work with housing advocates at the state level to encourage the state to increase its commitment to affordable housing funding to add to city housing funds.

S.R.: What is your opinion of the way the city does business and what would you change?

J.B.: As a community organizer by profession, grassroots involvement has been a cornerstone of any effort with which I’ve ever been involved. I think that the City Council needs to get out of City Hall more often and into the community.

Here’s how I plan to do that: First, I do not believe that Portlanders who live in outlying neighborhoods should be required to make a pilgrimage to City Hall to get help from a city official or have input into city issues. To that end, I will establish a series of field offices for my commission office in various neighborhoods throughout the city. To start, I will open two offices east of I-205 and one in St. Johns.

Second, it is often discussed that the City Council should occasionally have its meetings in places other than City Hall. This needs to move beyond the “nice-to-do” stage and to the “must-do” list. At least every other month, the City Council should meet in a school or community center or union hall or homeless shelter in various neighborhoods throughout the city.

Third, while the City Council schedules meetings for late Wednesday afternoons or evenings, these sessions are often canceled. The City Council must make a concerted effort to meet in the evenings so that people wanting to come testify on an issue or simply watch can do so without taking time off work.

Lastly, I will support the expansion of the neighborhood association concept to include non-geographic representation of communities of color. I believe the geographic-based neighborhood association system continues to have a role to play but that those associations cannot be everything to everyone. I believe there has to be a broader array of options for representation and involvement and we can start that expansion by discussing and adopting recommendations that are being developed by numerous groups throughout the city.

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