Read the Interview
This interview has also been made available in text form for your reading convenience. Software transcription has been used, with thorough hand-editing for accuracy and clarity. Please alert us to any errors in transcription at firstname.lastname@example.org. The host’s questions and comments are below in italics, with Andrew Zarro’s responses and comments in roman below. Section headers have been included in bold for the convenience of the reader.
Ashley: Hello and thank you for listening to the Portland Townsman audio. This is our series of policy matters interviews with the five mayoral candidates in 2023. We’re here at the Portland Media Center, our lovely partners on Congress Street. My name is Ashley Keenan. I’m joined today by City Councilor Andrew Zarro. How are you?
Andrew Zarro: I’m well. Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.
I’m excited to have you. These interviews are intended to be a deeper dive into the campaign platforms, policy positions, and strategies of each candidate for addressing the many issues that Portland is facing today. After some introduction, I’m going to try and ask you some pretty specific questions about a broad sweep of topics, and hopefully we’ll have some clear, productive discussion. Furthermore, as you and I both know, local politics is local. A lot of issues are hashed out at the state and federal level, and we don’t really need to talk about those. We’re focused here on firm stances and concrete policies for Portland. What do you think?
I think that sounds fun. Let’s do it.
Great. Well, before we start digging into the issues, how about you take a minute and introduce yourself and your campaign for the benefit of anyone who may not know that much about you?
Absolutely. Well, again, thank you for having me. Hello, everybody. My name is Andrew Zarro. I’m the district for City Councilor. I have been since 2020. I was the first person to announce my – my candidacy, in May, May 9th of this year, and I did it in the heart of Woodford’s Corner, which is half part of my district and a place that means quite a lot to me. I’m a former small business owner, and I’m really committed to our community. I’m running for mayor because I believe our city is at a critical point for our future. We have really significant challenges that we’re facing from housing to homelessness, climate and affordability. And I believe we need a leader who has the passion, vision and experience to tackle those head on, but to do it through creative coalition building, to leave transformative solutions. My campaign from day one has been a people’s campaign and my campaign is a promise to the people of Portland, and I intend to keep that promise.
We have to meet the moment now. I’ve done this for a while in different capacities in the public sector and the private sector by bringing people together rooted in community. I did it in Woodford’s Corner when I brought businesses and residents and organizations together to create the state’s first Metropolitan Main Street District and revitalize the corridor. I did it in the fall of 2021 when you couldn’t get a COVID shot for your vaccine booster anywhere. So I hosted a pop-up clinic at my shop and was able to get lots of other places to do it so people could be home with their families for the holidays. I did it when I sponsored the state’s first municipal mask mandate to protect Portlanders and citizens here. And I’ll continue to do that with initiatives like reestablishing Franklin Street to bring affordable housing to the city. I’m in it to solve the problems that we have with Portlanders. You’re right, Ashley, politics is local, it’s personal, and municipal government is the most intimate form of government. We’re in this together, and I’m really excited for our campaign.
All right, that’s awesome. We’ll be bringing up more of these kind of primary elements of your policy platform as we make our way through our topics. We’ll also be reviewing some of the most notable votes that you’ve made in the council recently because you are on the City Council. We have six main topics I’d like to get through during this conversation, which are the city charter and elections, the asylum seeker crisis, homelessness and law enforcement, ReCode land use and housing. transportation and infrastructure, and business and labor.
City Charter and Elections
So for our first section, I want to talk a bit about the nuts and bolts of city government and how you see yourself fitting in. For those who may not be aware, the office of mayor in Portland is a fairly unique hybrid. While it is directly elected by the people and has a limited number of executive functions, it remains primarily a legislative office. Essentially, the mayor is the permanent chair of the City Council. The executive role is still primarily fulfilled by the city manager, who could be described as sort of a CEO of the city. So Councilor Zarro, you have a pretty robust policy platform, you have clear goals and priorities. How do you plan to enact your agenda as mayor? You’re already a City Councilor. What would you do differently from what you’re doing right now?
So one of the first things that comes to mind is the role that the mayor plays, as you said, the chair of the council, in getting the work done is agenda setting. just like a chair of a committee would do. And I am the chair of the Sustainability and Transportation Committee. The mayor works closely with the city manager to do that. And so I’ve promised to prioritize climate and housing on every agenda. Not just talk about it when we do our goal setting session at the beginning of the year, but to actually see it through. And you do that with relationships. You do that by working together with the manager and with the council, but also with the community. We have a system right now that can be really frustrating when it comes to getting work done. And so that’s why we see things like citizens’ referenda. That’s why we see voter apathy and disengagement. Because people… they tune out when they feel like they’re not being heard.
And so my number one priority as mayor, and that would be a big difference for my role as a City Councilor, as a district councilor, is to prioritize the voice of the people on every single agenda and work with the councilors. Understand everyone has their own agenda. I do know that we’re nine people with nine really different personalities and sometimes that can be fun and sometimes that can be really challenging, but it’s the mayor’s job, in my opinion, to bring those eight other councilors together to get the work done. People did not elect us to be ineffective. They did not elect us to pontificate. They elected us to work for them. And I’ve demonstrated that as a City Councilor for my district. I take constituent services very seriously, but that’s the mayor’s job as well, to hold the council and staff accountable.
Sounds like you want to build a lot of relationships and relationships and focus on holding people accountable. One thing that many mayors across America, including here in Maine, have distinguished themselves with is taking advantage of the numerous federal grants available to municipalities for civic improvements, especially under the Biden administration, in which many have been introduced. There’s been some criticism of Portland’s government for not taking greater advantage of these. Do you have any plans for that, for seeking any of these grants?
I join in that criticism. I cannot tell you how many times I have brought grant opportunities to staff, whether it’s the Connecting Communities grant, whether it’s grants for the electrification of… beneficial electrification of our city. I’ve been working for well over a year now with our congressional delegation, with CMP and with city staff on increasing our electrical grid, which needs to be increased by at least three times its current size. It is an archaic grid, and you do that through federal funding and you’re right, there is quite a bit of it right now. Same with Franklin Street, we have an opportunity to transform a part of our city that was destroyed and Secretary Pete said if federal funds were used to segregate cities, then federal funds will be used to reunite them. So we have a lot of opportunity.
Portland is the largest city in the state. We’re also a population of 68,000 people. So that means we’re a relatively small city, but we have big city problems. And that means I think we’re the poster child for a lot of these federal grant opportunities and also state funding opportunities. Maine wants to see Portland succeed. We are the economic engine of the state in a lot of ways. And people come here, people celebrate us. And so we need to be able to advocate for ourselves when it comes to city staff and supporting them to seek out funding opportunities because the taxpayers of Portland are not going to pay for a lot of these large substantial investments that we need to make. But the good news is the money is out there. We just have to go get it. And you’re right, the mayor’s job is to seek that out, seek out innovation opportunities through collaboration with companies as well, public-private, but also public-public partnerships to accomplish a lot of these ambitious goals.
And you mentioned a connecting communities grant, or sorry, was that –
That was just one grant that came to mind that would be a really great.
And what is that?
That’s a federal grant that that would be one of the examples that would tie into the Franklin Street project. So investment that is kind of checking a few boxes, but specifically housing and transportation related.
I see. All right, that’s great. And you’ve sort of tapped on to my next question already, which is that Portland is one of the you know, geographically and even population wise, a small city compared to those in other states, we are still the largest city in Maine. Do you think that Portland should try to strengthen its coordination with surrounding towns and cities? And do you have any plans to do that?
Yes. So Portland is really good at punching above its weight class. We’ve always done it on pretty much everything. And sometimes we frustrate our neighbors in doing so, but we’re not gonna be able to do everything alone. We need our partner with South Portland when it comes to One Climate Future. We need Cape Elizabeth to not reject affordable housing proposals when they are presented with it. We need Falmouth to work with us on public transportation. So a regional approach to pretty much everything is how we are going to be successful, right? Yes, we are the greater Portland area, but a rising tide lifts all ships. So when it comes to housing affordability, when it comes to land use, when it comes to transportation, asylum seekers are on house neighbors, you name it. Portland’s not in it alone. And so I have every intention of reaching out to our… our colleagues and respective councils across our municipal boundary to re-establish that relationship so that we can work better together. We don’t right now. And I’m okay with saying that. I’m on the City Council.
And why don’t we?
We are in silos. We are just simply in our own –
So you don’t think that the effort has been made?
I have not seen it be made, no. And that might be within the purview of me as a City Councilor. I have a district to be responsible for, right? But I think when it comes to bigger things, One Climate Future is a good example where I think I’ve tried to be better about it because that’s a joint plan with South Portland. And so we kind of emulate and work together on certain things like coffee and climate is a great example where we do collaborate. But there are other opportunities that I think we, we’re just missing out, right? We have an opportunity for a lot of collaboration with other municipalities. We got big problems and we’re going to need all hands on deck to do that. So I look forward to inviting the other mayors and the other City Councils to come together with us and figure it out.
Well, the Charter Amendment, which would have transformed the mayoral position into a true executive role similar to what exists in other large cities like Boston or New York, failed in 2022, which leaves the current hybrid status quo. Do you think this is something that should be revisited? Or should this just be how we go forward as a city?
Are you asking me if we should have another Charter Commission?
More or less.
I just want to be clear. You know, that was a really, really interesting process to watch as a councilor. I’d just been elected. And then right after that were the elections for the charter commissioners. And you know, it went from there. It was really to watch the results of the November election. I have to say I actually wasn’t surprised. I am very closely in tune with – with my district and I talked to people a lot. and folks were really overwhelmed. There was a lot going on, on the last November ballot. I’m okay with the idea of a strong mayor, but what I feel like was starting to happen with this particular proposal, I believe it was question two –
– was it felt like it was really hyper-politicizing a large municipality structure onto a small city that was in a very transitional period. And I think being someone who at first did support the concept, wanted to see it fleshed out a little bit more, towards the end there, I just felt like it was rushed. People were not in consensus with each other on significant changes. If you’re going to make that big of a change, then I would have hoped for a little bit more collaboration. And it just felt like that was not in the end result. So while I will fully admit there are… some parts of our form of government that can be really challenging. I think there are ways to operate within our form of government, our current charter, where you can be way more effective, specifically with the way the mayor works with both the manager and the council. A lot of this does come down to personality, and a lot of it comes down to just values. So I’m happy to do a deeper dive in that, but I think what we’ve got right now with the right person. you can get a lot done.Personnel over systems is not a bad idea. Well, unlike the mayor change, the voters did approve a new clean elections program in which candidates that gather a large number of small donations and adhere to certain rules can get access to a public pool of money. You’re using the system, not all of your opponents are, though you were actually one of just a few councilors to oppose Councilor Trevorrow’s amendment to increase the Clean Election Fund’s budget by several hundred thousand dollars. You noted your “sticker shock” about it. Do you think the Portland taxpayer is now paying too much for running other people’s political campaigns?
I think what I’m hearing most, because I was the first person to become a certified, to declare and become a certified Clean Elections candidate in Portland’s history, so I’m very supportive of Clean Elections. as a policy. The reason I didn’t support that vote was because I felt like it was way too much money way too soon. And – and it happened very quickly. All of a sudden, we had a proposal on our desk, and we had had multiple workshops that had different proposals. I just was not comfortable with it. And that’s okay. I’m one of nine I was, I understood kind of the way the vote was going to go. And I just had to be honest of how I felt for that for that significant of an investment all at once. Do I think voters are… What I’ve heard from voters is they’re really confused. They don’t, it’s a new program so that makes sense to me. They don’t understand why we don’t, why it has to be cash or check. They don’t understand why, why don’t you have an option for, you know, online. It’s not synced up with our ballots, right? So we, I had to get, three or five hundred signatures for the ballot separate from the 200 signatures for the clean elections QCs, right?
So people are just very confused. And so we didn’t iron those out at the same time. And I think my win or lose my recommendation, I will be writing a memo to the clerk for what needs to be done because it is a very cumbersome process right now. All of that being said, I think we should celebrate the fact that we have a municipal clean elections program. That is great. We are we are able to keep the clean elections private funds out of our elections and people have the option if they want. So overall people I think are responding positively to the program, but they are confused about the structure of the program.
So you’d try to work out some of those kinks, ideally.
And we have to. I we truly have to. There are quite a few. I have I have called the clerk’s office probably three dozen times at this point with just, hey, did you know this? And then the clerk will go and they will and she will change the issue that I found because, you know, and again, it’s essentially a pilot at this point. So we need to be open to changing things.
You were the first guinea pig, so –
I’ve been called that many times by the clerk’s office, but it’s OK. I’m happy to play that role because, you know, I care about this stuff.
Interesting. Well, and speaking of elections, another major subject of debate at every election is the referendum system. Portland has, again, a pretty unique citizens’ initiative ordinance in Chapter 9 of the city code. Citizen initiatives passed by referendum have been the foundation of some pretty major policy changes over the past several years. In our code, the combination of a relatively low barrier to entry with a period of five whole years before the City Council can amend any initiative which has passed this way is exceedingly rare outside of Maine. Not even other New England cities have any comparable systems. This setup puts a lot of power behind citizen initiatives, which advocates, of course, say is good for democracy. Opponents say it disempowers elected officials and it has unintended consequences. You yourself were among the councilors who supported Mayor Snyder in crafting a reform to the system, which would have allowed, among other things, a supermajority to amend citizen initiatives after 18 months. But then following a bit of an 11th hour outcry by a group of residents and non-profits, you seemed to change tack and voted against it going to the voters. So… What happened and would you try to lead any new changes as mayor?
Yeah, okay. So that, yeah, I was very supportive of recommending we amend parts of chapter 9, and in a workshop in I think it was March, was very frustrated with my colleagues, because it seemed like at the time, they wanted to kill it immediately and not even have the conversation. But I thought it was important because we are seeing now in November and June back and forth, opposing interests play a, play a game with the referenda process. Because in Portland, you’re right, it is actually very easy to get a citizens referenda on the ballot, unusually easy compared to other municipalities throughout the country. So I thought it was very reasonable to be able to make some changes. And so I was supportive of, I was the one who recommended the super majority to make an amendment after, I think it was three years initially is what I proposed, but it’s been a couple of months. I recommended November only, so that we don’t even have to worry about the June ballot where there’s lower turnout for voters. I thought that it was okay to have a fiscal note. The council, I think, all supported that. And that mirrors what happens in Augusta, so it’s not unprecedented. There were a couple items that I had some questions about. The clerk and the corporation council, in my opinion, maybe had a little bit too much say, but I understood staff’s perspective.
You bring up a really interesting point. It was one of our double meetings, our classic, iconic July and August double meetings. And so in July, we saw, we were coming up, was finally coming to the council for a vote. And we did see, we saw some advocacy alerts. We saw a big call to action from people. And you have to remember, there were some folks who were on the fence on this in the first place. Only a few of us were really interested in pushing this through. And then it showed up very late in the meeting. I was aware that there was a chance that it was not gonna pass. I watched it in live time. We took up the item. There was an almost immediately a motion to postpone. There was a conversation about, I believe I spoke early and said, okay, how can we salvage this? Is it just November only? Is it three years and a super majority? And a couple other colleagues spoke and what they were speaking, what they were recommending was going to change everything. It was going to change what we discussed in workshop. It was not even something that had been previously discussed. And I, you know, I had to make a call in the moment. And the decision was, well, is it something that we’re going to hit pause on now and hopefully take the next year’s council will take it up? Or are we going to recommend something that we hadn’t even had a substantial conversation on? Or are we going to recommend something from the floor to go on the ballot at 10 o’clock at night? And that’s not good governance in my opinion. So that was definitely a messy night. But one last thing is I do remember a colleague saying that we should form a committee that the mayor appoints. And I asked, well, are we actually gonna do that? Are we going to form the committee or are we just saying we’re gonna form a committee and we’re not gonna form a committee? And I don’t recall it being brought up ever since the July meeting. I hope that that’s not the case, that a committee is appointed and if the current mayor does not appoint a committee, I will appoint a committee because they don’t think we finished that work.
I understand people are protective of referenda in Portland. I support citizens’ referenda. That’s how we got marriage equality, you know, supported in the state of Maine. It is the people’s veto. It’s important, but we can’t use it for every single thing that we just feel like using it for. And I do have a plan for changing our City Council’s rules so that hopefully we can mitigate and reduce the number of referenda by hearing Portland’s voices more. I’m happy to talk about that now or later.
Yeah, I would love to hear more about that. But before – before I, we do move on to that. So if you would support, you know, a reform to the referendum system going forward, would it be safe to assume it would match things that you’ve already supported such as shortening the unamendability period by super majority or not? November only; fiscal note?
Yeah, those three for me, I’m the most comfortable with. I think, you know, three years with a super majority, seven out of nine… I think fiscal note is… A fiscal note could also be removed. The council can say, actually, we don’t need the fiscal note, right? So that’s okay. That happens in Augusta all the time.
You know, three years would still make Portland an almost unique city in the country.
I agree with you, 100%. But I’m trying to find-
Not criticizing, just throwing some context.
I’m trying to find, what’s the balance here? What are people okay with? And I tried to do that that night. People were not okay with that. And November only, I think, is the great unifier. June referenda, to me, say that people are trying to slide things through. That’s what you’re telling me. So anyway.
All right. Well, yeah, I’d love to hear your idea about listening to the community. You talk about it.
Yeah, thank you. So why do people bring referenda? They bring referenda when they are not being heard. And so right before I showed up, there was a sentiment that the City Council of the time was not listening to people. And so the year that I was elected, I was also elected alongside six referenda. And that’s because previous City Councils were not listening to their constituents. And we saw a couple over the time I’ve been on this, and I’ve tried to work my best on the ones that were proposed. But here’s what we can do to prevent voters from feeling like they’re not being heard. And I did it this year in sustainability and transportation. So right now we have a goal setting meeting, the first of the year. Councilors all get a Post-it note and we make big signs of our issues. And then the mayor helps guide us of, okay, what do you guys wanna work on? And then we put our Post-it notes down and that’s it. Um, committees then go do whatever it is that they want to do.
So what I did in sustainability and transportation this year is I opened public comment to the community and I said, well, what do you want us to work on this year? And we had about two hours of people sharing what they think we should work on. And there were some real fun things in there. Get rid of 295. Well, I don’t think I can do that this year, but I appreciate you sharing it or, uh, more bike lanes or, uh, Franklin street or, uh, bird safe ordinance or climate impact, carbon impact, or get rid of cruise ships, right. And so we listened to everyone. And then we were able to choose quite a few of those items, add them to our to our committee’s agenda for the year, on top of what we’d already been working on. And we’ve been pushing that through to the council. And so people’s fingerprints are on those items. So what I’d like to do is kind of what Augusta does, instead of having our goal setting session in the beginning of the year that we choose. I want people to work with their councilors and say, hey, Councilor Zarro, I want a vacancy fee, and this is why I think we should do it. And I’ll say, that’s a cool idea. I’ll sponsor that. And so at the goal setting session, I’ll raise my hand and I’ll say, I’m working with so and so. and I wanna sponsor a vacancy proposal. So I moved to refer this to the Housing and Economic Development Committee. And by five votes, it goes to the committee. The committee then works on that for the session. It comes back to the council for full vote and the council votes it up and down. And in doing that, we have now taken a Portland voters voice and we’ve prioritized their recommendation.
It has fail safes. The council has to vote it to refer it to committee. The committee has to work on it and then decide if they’re gonna refer it back to the council. And if they do, then the council has to vote it up or down. It has lots of public comment, lots of opportunity for the community to be involved. And in doing so, you’re removing that feeling of being ignored and you’re removing the urge to create citizen referenda, because the citizenry are involved from the very beginning of the session. And so that is absolutely a rule change that I will prioritize as mayor, because A, it’s good public policy, it’s good public process. And B, I think we can collectively say, that we need to stop with the excessive use of citizen referenda.
It almost sounds a bit like a classic New England town meeting, I’m from downeast Maine where we still do those. So that’s definitely –Maybe a little Parliament too.
Well, I suppose.
All right, well, before moving on, did you have any other thoughts about the city charter about elections? Anything on this subject?
Everybody please vote this November. Please, please vote or register if you’re not registered.
Well, thank you. That’s enough about the charter and elections. Let’s move on to our second section, which is about the ongoing influx of asylum seekers into Portland. Your own campaign website has a lot of information about some of the stressors that are facing Portland.
The Asylum Seeker Crisis
For those who may not know, an asylum seeker is someone outside the United States who enters the country either using a different pretext or by illicitly crossing a border. And then once in the United States, they are forced to leave the country. and claims that they cannot return to their country of origin for credible fear of being persecuted for their race, religion, nationality, social status, or political affiliation. The Portland Townsman has been conducting an extended fact-finding effort on this crisis and it’s a significant challenge for the city right now. Your own campaign website, as I mentioned, goes into many of the formidable statistics about the state of shelters in Portland. And according to the city, heavy majorities of occupants in all city shelters are asylum seekers. Indeed, as of August 24th, 100% of the residents of the city family shelter are asylum seekers, and the city is partnering in opening a new shelter in Riverton explicitly for asylum seekers.
Again, according to city and non-profit sources, at least 1,600 asylum seekers have arrived in Portland since January 1st of this year, and the figure could be as high as 2,000. It’s a tough number to pin down. To open this topic, do you approve of this strategy that the city has taken so far with regards to this crisis?
Yeah, I think what the city has done so far, given our resources, is commendable. Per capita, or a city of 68,000 people, right? That’s a significant number of people. Portland has one of the biggest hearts, I think, out there. So we do everything we can, and I will say city staff works very hard to do the impossible. This is a national issue that is trickling down to municipalities. And the state shows up when they can. This is an undue burden on Portland, but we’re doing everything we can to tread water. The statistics that you shared and that are on my site are, they’re outdated very quickly because the numbers are always changing. And we’re managing multiple populations of people who are underserved and have specific needs, asylum seekers. Right now, our shelter right now is over 60% capacity of… sorry, 60% of the capacity are asylum seekers because it’s first-come-first-serve. So what that’s doing is pushing our unhoused neighbors onto the street.
So that’s why we’re working to open this shelter in Riverside to open up those 180 beds so that we can restore the capacity to help our other unhoused neighbors. But you know this is when regional approaches are a priority. This is when a relationship between Portland and Augusta must be a priority because Portland cannot do this on its own. But there are… I want to look at this as an opportunity. Maine is the oldest state in the country. You’re the whitest state in the country. We have a declining population. So let’s look at this as a good thing. We have new neighbors coming here. who want to start their lives here. They want to open businesses. They want to work. They want to be a part of a new community. And I think we should be really excited to welcome people. There’s a huge barrier that is federal law that prevents asylum seekers from getting employment for a minimum of six months. Sometimes it’s 12 months. There’s a lot of barriers. It is an incredibly challenging situation to be in because people are just sitting, they’re just sitting and doing nothing, but they want to be actively involved in the community. So we are lucky that we have a congressional delegation. I know you said don’t talk about other forms of government, but they are working on it.
This is the city’s congressional delegation. That’s okay.
Okay, thank you. They are working on it. Senator King and Congresswoman Pingree are leading the charge to change that six-month ban. I’m just gonna, let’s have the conversation right now. There have been states that have done pretty wild things when it came to cannabis, where they were going against federal law when it came to legalizing cannabis. I think if the federal government doesn’t do something soon, we’re gonna start seeing states and maybe even municipalities getting creative with their legislation to say, “No, no, no, go work. And we’ll take the brunt if we have to.” This is not just a Portland thing. This is almost every city and town in the country. So. Hopefully we’ll see some movement soon, but in the meantime, if we need to be getting creative about getting people to work, I’m all about it.
So you would support if the state of Maine was to just unilaterally say that it could issue work permits before the federal government could?
I think if the state of Maine wanted to do that, if our colleagues in Augusta wanted to do that, I would give them a thumbs up. Do I see it happening? Probably not. But I mean, this is when we have an obligation to our communities and our people, right? And so we have an entire, we have new neighbors here who wanna be a part of our community. And I think we need to give them every opportunity to have dignified, work, housing and opportunity, just like we want for everybody. But I’m grateful for the partnership that we have with MIRC, Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition for the new shelter on Riverside. I’m grateful for GP Cog for a lot of their work on trying to be a regional connector on this and other municipalities. But this is only gonna get work – worse as you’re looking at, you know, climate refugees, like, this is not going this is not just something that’s happening right now in time. So we need to do more to – to expand and work with.
And you’ve brought up regional cooperation. And you also mentioned that earlier, are you just going to be dependent on, you know, the state trying to obligate other towns and cities to do this? Because I mean, from the perspective of one of Portland suburbs, it seems like it would be difficult to get them to take on extra burdens, rather than, you know, just make Portland deal with it.
We can’t make the state do anything. But I think we can invite them to be a part of the solution, right. And so that can look different for different administrations change, right. So I think, you know, the easiest thing that they could do is… is a financial support, right. So that those, those… And they’ve been doing that, for the most part. But I think, you know, partnerships don’t have to be cut and dry. I think that everyone is going to bring a different perspective. What Portland is able to do as the service center is really different from what, I don’t know, Falmouth is going to be able to participate in. But, you know, look at when the expo just closed a couple weeks ago, right? We now have a hotel in Freeport, right? So now Freeport is a partner.
Yeah, and they’re not happy about it.
I understand to a point, but also this isn’t… Again, this isn’t like Portland is not the key to everything. We are we are absolutely a major stakeholder. And again, we punch above our weight class. But this is when we have to be better about calling people other communities into being a part of the solution. And again, I’m going to always look at this as an opportunity. These are new neighbors who are going to contribute to our community and our economy. We have an amazing adult ed education program that we have what we have like 60 something languages spoken in the school system here. I mean, these are all things to celebrate. And so I think we really need to be better collaboratively, collectively rather as a state of saying, Okay, this is, this is reality. This is what’s happening. So how are we going to put our best foot forward and continue to be supportive. But again, this is not this is not just Portland doing it alone.
You also mentioned the Riverton shelter, which will be cooperation with MIRC, as you mentioned. You voted to approve it, which won’t be a city-run shelter, but it will rely on the work of city staff, at least for the first year of its operation. And something I just have heard from many people that it must be pointed out… That vote to approve it happened the very day before a council organizing community meeting on homelessness was set to take place. A lot of people were very upset that, you know, prior to this listening session, such a crucial decision was being made. Would the listening session have made any difference at all?
[sigh] It’s as I was alluding to before, it’s very, I always want to be really intentional when we’re talking about neighbors who are underserved and have – have needs that need to be met. And right now we have our unhoused neighbors and we have asylum seekers. And I always want to be really careful not to pit them against each other because, because I don’t want to do that. And because they have incredibly different needs from one another. And that doesn’t change the fact that we want to be I want to be supportive of them, and getting them back on their feet. That process was that vote, I understand was, we heard from some folks in District five who were upset, they were they were confused. “Wait, why is this happening? What’s going on? This is news to me, we just went through this with rivers with the HSC.”
You know, I think I remember saying that night that neighboring is a verb, and it’s hard sometimes. And I and I understand that I’m actually meeting with a bunch of a few neighbors of the Riverside, soon to be Riverside Shelter next week to talk to them about creating, working with the city to create a roadmap. Because I want them to have you know, they are stakeholders, they should have a say, they should be, you know, they should be able to have all their questions answered. They should be able to know what they want to know. I feel like any of us would want that. So I understand that that vote was challenging for the community. I also know how people are responding to the alternative of not doing anything, right? The week before we had a meeting where… I’m mixing my meetings… Yeah, I think it was the week before we had a meeting… Where we were talking about unhoused neighbors in the shelter being at capacity and what are we do is the ECRT proposal we were talking about that and I said that this is a marathon not a sprint and one of my colleagues who will remain nameless said “Well we don’t want a marathon. We need to we need to do something now We need to do something right now.” And then the next week we had this in front of us. And so that was doing something right now.
So I voted for it because it was something to do, right? And if we’re gonna kick the can down the road and not do anything, then what’s the alternative? People who have nowhere to go, people who are unhoused, people who need services. And so, sometimes these decisions feel impossible and sometimes they are impossible. But I’m fully committed to continuing working closely with neighbors in that district so that they are heard because this impacts them and I get that that is not lost on me. I get it. These are big changes for a relatively small city. But again, I want them to feel heard. I want them to be able to put their fingerprints on this work as well.
The current government of Portland, the current administration has requested that Governor Mills call in the National Guard to help deal with the asylum seeker crisis. Is this a course of action that you would also pursue?
Well I just don’t think that’s going to happen.
You don’t think it’s going to happen?
I’m just going to be really honest.That’s not going to happen. People in the National Guard have day jobs. They have they have things that they’re doing. I understand that the mayor and the manager wanted to call them in. I mean, I get it. It’s it’s… I think that is more of a, “Hey, you’re not paying attention to us. You need to pay more attention to us.” One thing I want to avoid and that I will avoid if I’m the next mayor is finger pointing with Augusta because they do not like that. It is not you don’t want to work with someone who is saying you’re not doing enough. So I would like to approach that a little differently and say, OK, so you don’t want to send the National Guard. What do you want to do? How can we work together? So, thank you. I think that we are in a crisis, don’t get me wrong, we’re in a housing crisis, we’re in a climate crisis, and we do have tools to use when it comes to that, but I think we are going to be way more successful, again, of working closely with the governor’s administration. And mind you, our state delegation does have quite a bit of power. Working closer with them, tell me what we can accomplish, tell me what’s off the table, be honest. My feelings aren’t gonna be hurt. But I think I do know, I know that our colleagues in Augusta do not like to be publicly called out by us if we’re if we’re saying that they’re not doing enough. And that we have to work together. They are our greatest partner. And so I would like to work closely with them to get stuff done.
I don’t think anybody likes being called out for anything, so I think that makes sense. And speaking of Augusta, a state law, which is administered through municipalities, is of course general assistance, which Portland doesn’t have any power to change. It’s a state law, but it is administered differently between municipalities. And according to the city and non-profits as well as just individual asylum seekers, Maine’s general assistance law has been a notable economic draw, especially since, as asylum seekers qualify for it, which is partially why Maine has been a popular second destination for asylum seekers. You know, they cross the border or they arrive on a plane and they go to, you know, one city first and then they end up in Maine as a second destination. Would you change anything about how— Portland currently administers its general assistance program?
Well, we did change it about a year and a half ago. I can’t remember exactly when, but we changed it because of our capacity. We no longer could guarantee. I mean, we are we must comply by state law.
Yes, it’s a state law. It’s not Portland law.Exactly, but we can change the way we administer. So I think we switched over about a year and a half ago, a year and three months. We changed to a voucher because we cannot guarantee housing anymore. Guarantee housing for anyone. So we did have to make that change. I don’t think there’s much more we can do at this point. If someone comes here and they file for GA in Portland, and Portland is responsible for them, they can’t then go to… remember a few months ago, and folks went to Sanford, people had to come back to Portland, because they registered here. So I mean, I know that this has been discussed in Augusta. I don’t, I don’t know, I don’t… Until this starts to become something that multiple communities are dealing with, I don’t know if I see the state law changing. I think as long as Portland is really predominantly the only municipality dealing with it, others, I think folks are gonna say, “Ah, Portland’s got it.” But it’s not until we start to see other municipalities having to deal with this in larger numbers, which I think will start happening more and more as we’re beyond our capacity.
I think that’s when you’re gonna start to see the political push in Augusta to change GA. But other than what we did a year or so ago to change how we administer, I don’t know how much more we could do because we’re doing the actual bare minimum without being out of compliance, right? Which like, one could make the argument of, well, just don’t be in compliance, right? And then people have made that argument that for me feels like we’re playing a dangerous game there, right, because you’re doing a couple of things. You’re ignoring people, right, who are coming here seeking refuge. And also then you would be potentially not complying with state law. So I that I would never go that far. But I don’t I just don’t think there’s a whole lot we can do, considering we’re at the bare minimum right now.
All right. Well, do you have any other points that you’d like to make on this subject before we move on?
Okay. Well, I mean, it is pretty closely connected to our next section, which been a pretty much discussed topic, which is, of course, the homelessness, encampments, and law enforcement.
Encampments and Law EnforcementAs most know, Portland has seen enormous growth in homeless communities or encampments on public and private land in the city. The city recently cleared the Four River encampment with its dozens of tents and the state cleared the I-295 camp on very short notice.
Portland is undoubtedly facing enormous leaps in cost of living, but there have been many concerns about these encampments from neighbors. And Councilor Zarro, as I mentioned earlier, you make a big point of talking about the state of the shelters in Portland. You note that there are 654 emergency shelter beds available, often fully occupied more or less. 146 family shelter beds, hundreds of ad hoc beds placed in middle schools and in the expo, and the over 600 homeless people being put up in hotels nightly, without even mentioning those sheltered by non-profits. I’m getting all these numbers from your campaign website. In your website, you – you bring up a rather specific policy idea, which I always appreciate to see, which is the idea of building a sort of micro-community. So how about you just explain it?
I would love to. Thank you. Okay. So when you think about housing specifically for our unhoused neighbors, you can’t move one lane of housing. There’s three types that we’re looking at. One is emergency housing, one is transitional housing, and one is permanent housing. You can’t one of those on its own is not going to solve it. So we invested a lot in emergency housing, our shelter, right? We’re seeing a lot of issues with that, right? People are not going to go there because they don’t want to leave their partner or they have a dog or they are using and they have substance abuse issues. And they don’t want to they don’t want to give that up to, you know, we need to offer alternatives to housing, right? Because emergency shelter, there’s a lot of data that shows it’s just not going to do it. There’s good news. Other municipalities have done this. It’s working successfully. So transitional housing is the key out of this one. And that’s by adopting a housing-first policy and coupling it with housing.
So what is my plan? So my plan is to build 100 units of efficient tiny homes. There is a proposal actually that GPCOG has been working on. It’s about $44,000 a unit, and they can go up in a day, provide them with wraparound services. By the way, we have $9 million in our housing trust fund. So you do 100 units at about 44, that’s four point something million dollars. So we’d have money to spend after that. So we have the money and we have land, right? We have city owned land. Also the state of Maine in this past budget, uh, allocated $13 million for housing-first policies. And I think something you’re very good at fact checking something like $70 million in general for this type of investment in battling and overcoming homelessness. So there is money there, right? There’s municipal money. There’s state money. This is a proven model that works, right? You’re going to be able to get lots of people off the streets and into housing right away.
Could you say more, like, what would this literally look like?
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Yeah, I mean, think about it as like a small community of very similar structures. where people have wraparound services, right? Because this isn’t just a homelessness crisis. This is mental health and this is substance abuse, all converging on each other. So you have to have wraparound services. So there does have to be either city staff or take the ECRT model we have, which is a coalition of service providers in the city. And instead of focusing on an encampment, focus on this community, right? People will have an address, right? So they can get mail, so they can apply for a job, so that they have a place to call home in a community. They can live with their partners, they can have their dog.
So small homes, tiny homes.
You know, I’m picturing in my head, like a mobile home, but maybe that’s just my own cultural background. And where would this be?
So that’s the big question, right? Land. Land use land use is one of the most powerful –
We’ll get more into that later. But like, do you have a site?
I thought you were setting me up. No, I’m not the emperor of Portland. So I think that’s where you have to go through. Like, you have to go through pretty robust public process. This was before my time on the council. But I remember when the previous councils were discussing where the shelter is going to be, they did identify several locations. So. I don’t have anything in mind. I do understand that wherever it is is probably going to be troublesome for whoever is the abutting neighbors. But I don’t want this to be looked, this isn’t a shelter, it’s transitional housing. We do have some transitional housing in the city, but it’s not much of it. It’s our family housing. So these are places that can be in the community with everybody else. It doesn’t have to be this segregated part of our city that I don’t think anyone wants that either.
Yeah, so you’re saying, and this was a question I had, so it’s transitional housing, it’s not a shelter. What makes it different from a shelter? I get that, you know, you’d have an address, it’s detached housing, I understand that part. But what would be different about you know, who qualifies for it? Like, would there be a more robust, like gate – gate to pass before you can get into it? Or – ?
I think it’s the opposite. It’s, it’s, so it’s, it’s coupled with housing first policies. So it’s, it’s removing the barriers that exist that the remaining barriers, I should say that exist that people won’t use a shelter emergency shelter for. Right. So I mean, there will be people who have, they are struggling. They are struggling with mental health or substance abuse, but there’s a lot of data out there that just housing-first policies are the most successful results when it comes to getting people out of being chronically homeless.
Yeah, sorry, to rephrase slightly, like say I was a homeless person and I am, you know, and I’m going to the city for help. Why – So I could either go to the shelter or to one of these transitional housing units?
So I think the emergency shelter is your that’s your first stop, right? That’s your, Do you need a bed? And if you need a bed, you take it, get your evaluation, because remember, we have wraparound services there. And then from there, once you’ve been evaluated, been there for a while, okay, we’re gonna put you in transitional housing.
Alright, so it would be open to people that are already in shelters.
That is correct.
However, it’s also an option if there is, if there’s a couple who very well might be totally good with going to the shelter, if not for the fact they have to separate. Transitional housing, right? So it’s, it’s just one more type of option because emergency shelter is just not the answer for everyone. It’s the answer for some. And I know that there’s some pushback that we saw the other day with the encampment that was broken up. And there’s a lot of numbers throwing around. You know, since June, there were 180 vacancies and only X number of people accepted. Well, there’s a lot of nuance there, right? It’s not as simple as someone just said, no, I’m good, I’d rather sleep outside. It’s, there’s a lot, there’s barriers. Where am I gonna put my storage? You know, or I’m with my partner. You know, there’s just a lot. And I think the new, humans are messy, right? There’s a lot of nuance to us.
So I think by offering these options, the ultimate goal here is permanent housing, right? And employment. That middle lane of transitional is what gets us from emergency to permanent. My goal is to house people. My goal is to eradicate homelessness. And I know that’s a big goal. This one’s near and dear to my heart. I was a teen who experienced being unhoused and under-housed and I know what it does to people. And I was lucky, but. We have a big heart in this city. I think this is successful in other cities. This is not rocket science, right? We are a bunch of smart people in the city of Portland. I think we can do it out. There’s a lot of money out there that we can do this. So that’s absolutely a priority for me as mayor. And I, certainly hope to see by this time next year we have we’ve made quite a bit of momentum on it.
And obviously me asking questions here is not a criticism of your policy, but a major criticism of the homeless services shelter is that it is sort of far off. Like it’s… For a lot of people, the reason that encampments crop up usually on the peninsula or very near the peninsula is that it’s sort of where things are, it’s where people are. And if this community, you know, which, you know, sounds like a great idea, but if it was to be set up, you know, in District 5, would you have the same problem of people don’t want to live where nobody is?
I mean, that’s a good question. It’s the obvious question. By the time I showed up on the council, there had already been a location I could have absolutely thrown my ‘no’ vote in wouldn’t have done anything. But you’re right, it’s far away. And services were moved to coincide with it. But we are seeing people crave community first, usually communities tend that that tends to be why people congregate. I don’t think District 5 is on the table just considering how much District 5 is participating now with the new shelter as well.
I’m sure they’ll be happy to hear that.
I just, I also, I, you know, we’re talking equity. We talk about equity a lot, right? But I think that being really intentional with that location is everything, right? Not just if we’re gonna provide wraparound services to wherever it is, we’ll be able to do that, but hey, let’s put it near public transit. Let’s make sure people are getting around and they can go to the grocery store, right? Because this is that transitional. This is supposed to be that, this is your home until you move on to the permanent option. So I think it does need to be, we need to think about it like we would think about complete streets, right? I agree with you, the shelter is far away. We do make it very easy for people to get there. We have a free shuttle, like we wanna make sure people get access, but that was one of the biggest pushbacks and it’s a legitimate pushback. It’s not out of left field.
And my last question about this idea, because I really appreciate that you’re coming out with such a bold idea here. You talk a lot about wraparound services, mental health, addiction treatment, but this was also a major focus of the Homeless Services Center, and that has become overwhelmingly housing for asylum seekers who generally don’t need mental health or addiction treatment. They need language services or help with applying for a work permit, that sort of thing. And so you have a shelter whose resources are going to a community that doesn’t need them. How would your plan avoid this?
So for those of you who can’t see me, I’m aggressively nodding. Yes, right? So very different communities, very different needs. And so if you have the infrastructure that we have at the homeless service shelter with really specific needs for 80% of people, 60% of people who don’t need them, well, that’s a waste of resources that need to actually go to people. So I think being really intentional with, what we’re doing with Riverside right now just that, right? We’re moving people to asylum seekers to a place for where their needs are, right? Language services.
180 people in that shelter?
Yeah. And let’s be honest, I’m not sure how long that’s going to be. before that’s before we’re in the same situation, right? Like, and that gets back to what we were talking about before. But in terms of making sure transitional housing, I mean, 100 units 44,000 each, right, like do a pilot, let’s do let’s see what works, maybe 50/50. Maybe, maybe, again, I think that’s kind of the flexibility about it. It’s our job to meet people where they’re at. And so if we’re not going to, you know, Ashley has x, y and z needs. Well, I’m going to try my best to give you the services you require to accomplish whatever it is you need. I’m not going to give you something that doesn’t help you at all.
And I think that’s where good policy comes in and being really flexible. And I want to give credit where credit is due. HHS, our director of HHS, is very good. She has been so good at trying to ask people what they need. Because we can’t just assume we know everything about what people need. And so she’s really pivoting that from her department’s perspective. And I think we have to continue doing that. Because if we’re going to build new infrastructure, right, for transitional housing, we want people to use it. We don’t want it to go and either be used inappropriately or for the wrong reasons, rather. So always start with the communities you’re working with and find out what they need and then give it to them.
And speaking of, you know, HHS, and you mentioned it earlier, but the encampment crisis response team is a relatively new organ of the city and its partners. Do you approve of the model that they’ve been using to target homeless encampments?
I think it’s a good model. I think it’s a long-term model, right? So it’s not going to solve anything today. I think, you know, this goes with the theme of our conversation here. It’s, it’s all rooted in relationships. It’s all rooted in people working together collaboratively from different perspectives to figure this out. I think ECRT will complement a transitional housing methodology really well. because it’s all of them, right? Service providers, it’s the city, it’s like state partners, all, think about what they’re doing. Instead of creating these zones that are going to exist for X number of days before an encampment is cleared, what if you didn’t have a zone with a timeline and you’re providing bare services and maybe a porta potty, what if you’re doing that but it’s housing, right? There’s no time limit, there’s no anxiety, there’s no breaking up encampments and potentially causing harm. So an ECRT model is great. Let’s apply it to something that’s permanent instead of these amorphous, ever-changing zones that I don’t fully understand, to be really honest. But I’m also not on the HHS committee. I’ve never been to an ECRT meeting. I haven’t been invited. But also, it would be strange if the sustainability guy showed up. So I think it’s a good model that just needs to be applied to something a little bit more permanent. I think that would help not only the people we’re trying to help, but I think it would help the people who are on the ECRT.
And my last question before bridging into the second half of this topic, you know, it’s a hard question, but what if there’s adequate shelter space or adequate transitional housing space for an individual, but they choose not to take it? Would they be allowed to continue camping on public land?
So you’re saying if there’s space for them at either an emergency bed or a transitional bed and they say no?
Those are amazing options, right? Our ordinance right now says if there is a bed for you, You cannot camp.
So you as mayor would say “You have to leave.”
Listen, for me, I’m gonna be really clear about this because I know people are talking about it. My goal is to house people. If we’re saying, nah, I’m not gonna house you, you can sleep outside, then I failed. I failed, 100%. And that’s how I feel, and people can disagree with me, I understand. I understand, believe me when I say I understand. My goal is to house people. So if we are able to and I will work on building transitional housing, if we are able to say you can go to an emergency shelter or through housing first policies, go to transitional housing, and you say no, and you have the right to say no, can’t force you to be housed. Okay, that’s your choice. But that’s not an option for me because my goal is to get you housed. The reality is there will always be individuals, hopefully not many, but there will always be people who will be reluctant to housing. And that is a societal failure and it is heartbreaking. But I think if we have the infrastructure, if we do everything we can to accomplish those goals that we just talked about, then hopefully we don’t have to deal with that. Hopefully we don’t need to be okay with that.
But if we do, then you would enforce against camping on public land?
Yes, but that’s a big like, I hope everyone listens to the entirety of this part of the interview. Because with that context, I think it means something for me. And for people who need to be housed. I just, we got it. We got to house people. We have to.
People want to know.
Okay, I get it.
On the question of enforcement, leaning into law enforcement, which I want to open up with the fact that Portland Police have been under a lot of criticism since the April 1st demonstration of a white supremacist group led to no arrests, despite a fight breaking out and members of this group assaulting counter-protesters. Not long afterwards the interim police chief resigned following an executive session with City Council. Obviously we’ve hired a police chief since then, a permanent one. So what’s going on here and what would you do as mayor about this situation?
Sorry, I’m asking all the tough ones.
So what’s going on here is white supremacy. So, uh, all right, couple of things. What happened in April was, was… unacceptable and it is not tolerated here. I do not tolerate that and I was very clear to work with the district attorney and to work with City Council. I wrote a statement a couple of days after it happened hoping to get the whole City Council to sign it. People did not agree for different reasons but I released a statement because I thought it was really important for us to unequivocally condemn that behavior. It’s very clear what’s happening when groups do that. And that’s not just a Portland thing, that’s happening in lots of places. They’re testing us, they wanna see how far they can get away with. They all match the same because they don’t wanna be held accountable, they don’t wanna be identified because pretty sure their employers would be pretty not happy with finding out that they’re doing that.
The police response to that event… I can’t go into the detail, but we did have an executive session about it, and we were able to learn a lot about it. We were able to see the footage, was able to actually have a conversation with police about what happened. And then I told them, well, you need to do this, this, this, and this. And so, or ask, also ask, what are you going to do about it? And so we did get a report out a couple of months later. of what they changed and what they’re going to start changing. And so a couple of the things that are coming to mind is they’re documenting things that they wouldn’t have documented before, right? So you’re seeing flyers around town, those are getting documented. Those are being assigned to people when they’re when we know who’s doing what it’s getting documented as it should be. People are trying to instill terror in our community. And that’s not going to fly. It’s not gonna fly with me.
And believe me, I have my fair share of people coming after me regularly, in council meeting. Council meetings, you know, it’s unfortunately what it is to be elected in 2023. But I had a meeting with the new police chief and I had a good conversation with him. What are you going to do about it? And he’s taking it seriously. I speak to the district attorney pretty often. She’s taking it seriously. I will protect our local government, our democracy at all costs. They’re trying to take over the public forum. They’re trying to take over the public square. And that’s not theirs. That’s Portlanders. That’s yours.
Well, they’re definitely taking over the public comment section at City Council.
(Note: This was recorded before the City Council shifted its Zoom policy.)
Well that’s, that’s not going to go on for too much longer because that’s it’s not theirs to take. Right. So they can, they can, you know, they tried. No, unacceptable. It’s not, it’s just not gonna happen. And if there’s one thing I wanna convey, it’s that I’m working diligently and regularly with city staff, with the police department, with our, you know, our DA. We’re on top of this. And I, my heart hurts when I think of any Portlander who’s scared, who feels targeted, who feels like they can’t go do something. I don’t… Shame on those people for doing that to our our residents, especially our our most vulnerable residents are black and brown residents are LGBTQ+ residents like this is not that is not allowed here.
We don’t need to dwell on it much longer. Shifting gears slightly. In a recent and highly emotional vote on the council, Councilors Phillips, Trevorrow, and Pelletier voted against giving the Portland Police Department a raise, though you voted with the majority that granted them one. Do you feel that law enforcement officers are compensated fairly in Portland?
Yeah, so that vote was tricky. So I’m just gonna be really honest about it. That, I’m on the finance committee, along with Councilor Dion and Councilor Trevorrow. So we vote everything out of finance before it goes to the full council. And on this particular item, this is a union, right? So unions, we often discuss in executive session. So this item was actually discussed months and months and months before. in an executive session. So if we were to wait until July, June, this was kicked into July, right? Yes, because the legislature was very late. If we were to give guidance in February, and then in July, change our vote. Well, that’s not governing that’s, that’s not bargaining in good faith with our union. So for me, there were a lot of layers to that. I totally understand that. But um, this one was a little more complicated. For a couple reasons.
I would have been happy to sponsor that in in finance committee. No one came to talk about it in finance committee. That department got a raise this year after not having one in several years. We have 250 vacancies in the city of Portland. We don’t… in my opinion, I’m only speaking on behalf of myself in this interview. We don’t pay our city staff what we should. We wonder why we have 250 vacancies. We wonder why the market is out-competing people. We wonder why people are leaving all the time. Well, a great way to treat your employees well is to pay them a livable wage. And my understanding was, I think, off the top of my head, I don’t know, I think it was like 20 to 50 an hour, right? For people who are doing like really hard jobs. And I understand. I truly understand that. It’s really complicated vote. It is not. And I did struggle with it. I’ll be honest about that. I did have a hard time. But I also have an obligation to…
So you consider it an irresponsible vote on the minority’s part?
I mean, people are allowed to vote however they wanna vote. I just, I’m telling you what was going on in my head, right? We had multiple opportunities to make an amendment, to make a change. I even, that was the 11th hour and then some. And my fear, just like with any other department, because we gave other departments raises as well because they needed it. My fear is if we continue to do that to our city staff, we’re going to have even more vacancies. And my job is to look out for our city staff. I want to be a good employer. I think we should have livable wages and then some. We should always support our unions. We should… Heck, let’s have, I want a four-day working for our city staff, right? Like, I’m getting off topic. I think we have our process of how we do things, like vote on budgets, right? We have lots of opportunities, and we should be working together. And we could have done something had we worked on that sooner, if it were brought up sooner.
And just to connect back to sort of the original question, I felt like you said two things that maybe I misunderstood. It sounded like you said that, you know, if somebody had brought this concern to you in committee, then you potentially would have sponsored some sort of decrease or delay to their, you know, to their raise in the salary. But you also said that police officers seem to be underpaid. So…
Well, no, I’m sorry. Thank you for letting me clarify. I’m saying, like, if we wanted to have that conversation, then we should have. That’s our job in committee. That’s what we do. So if I can’t remember what Councillor Phillips wanted, I think it was splitting it in half and then doing it over two years.
Yeah, I believe so.
Well, then let’s talk about that in committee. Let’s do that. I mean, that’s why we have our, you know, we have colleagues we can rely on. No, no, I will be clear. They were very underpaid. They were under a livable wage. And I would do that for any other department. But, you know, I think they’re also 33 vacancies. Those positions also don’t have to be officers. I believe there are also like community response positions in there. So I fully understand and respect and appreciate that there is a lot to that conversation. But in terms of how that played out, I was with the majority because we had been having those conversations for a really long time.
All right. Well, thank you. Did you have any other thoughts on the subject that you wanted to bring up before we transfer over to something I think you’re a little bit more comfortable with?
Hey, I’m comfortable with being uncomfortable. That is what being a public servant is, is that, you know, and it’s when we’re uncomfortable that we grow the most.
All right, let’s move on to our next section.
ReCode, Land Use, and Housing
Portland has seen skyrocketing housing costs over the past several years, both in terms of house prices and rents. By most reckonings, we are in a massive housing shortage with vacancy rates in the city hitting 40-year lows since 2020. Mainehousing suggests that Maine is short over 20,000 affordable housing units. And our own findings suggest that accounting for market rate units, the number is even higher. A number of policies have been enacted at the state and local level, both by electeds and by referendum, to try and address this crisis.
You’ve made land use a pretty significant part of your platform. and there’s plenty to talk about here. But first, would you agree that there’s a housing shortage in Portland or would you characterize it in a different way?
I emphatically agree that there is a housing shortage. I’ve already said there’s a crisis.
So what’s the best way to ameliorate this shortage? And what would you do as mayor to see that happen?
Yeah, so this this is one of the topics I’m the most passionate about. This this is actually one of the reasons why I decided to run for mayor. And I’m doing everything to show the people of Portland that I am the housing candidate. There is a lot that we can do. Land use is one of them. I don’t know if you want me to do a deep dive into land use right now, or if that’s a separate item.
Go for it.
Yeah. Okay. So land use is one of them. Land use is where the municipality has the ability to really throw its weight around. And we’ve been empowered by LD 2003, which came out of the state last year. I think Portland has an opportunity to be a leader in implementing this. And so we have ReCode phase two going on right now. But I, I, think this is our time to shine. This is our time to meet the moment of housing. So first things first is we need to zone our city so that it’s for people. We need to zone our city so that we can build housing. And there’s all sorts of neighborhoods in Portland and they all look different. And I understand that people are really hesitant about what it’s gonna be if their neighborhood changes. But I think for the most part, we can emphasize our housing, building more housing in our city without really changing anyone’s, you know, character too much.
So the first thing that comes to mind is in the comp plan of 2017, I believe it’s we needed to build about 2500 units of housing, give or take in the next 10 years, and we’d be good. Well, clearly, that was wrong. I think that we need to be building and I will commit to building 10,000 to 12,000 units in the next 10 years. And that if we do it will just barely put us over what our population was in the mid-20th century. Separate topic, but related. So we do that through zoning for one thing that I proposed and I wrote a piece about it not too long ago is taking our industrial zones, so light industrial, moderate industrial, think about parts of Bayside where the breweries are. You can’t build housing there. Why not? Don’t, don’t you don’t we want to build dense housing and walkable neighborhoods? Think about parts of Warren Ave and Riverside. There’s no housing there. Well, there should be because those are giant swaths of land.
We are not in an industrial crisis. We are in a housing crisis. And so that means we need to prioritize housing. over everything else until we’re out of that. I think that we need to look at how our, and back, sorry, back to ReCode. So looking at our “R” zones, I know there’s, we have R-3, R-5, I think for the most part, people walking around won’t tell the difference, other than maybe the yard is a little bit smaller in one. Setbacks are a huge issue for ADUs, accessory dwelling units, right? And so we have a lot of –
And what is a setback?
I know, but –
I know, I was trying not to get too wonky. And here I am, I get excited about this stuff. So if you think about like the allotted use of the square of the footprint of your building on your property, and where you’re allowed to build versus where you’re not. And so think about like the proximity of your building or to another building that’s near you or the the, the property line. So if we’re trying to look at things like, building ADUs, which was really the takeaway of ReCode Phase 1, and a couple other small things, then we need to follow through on that. And the state’s really supportive of it as well. So I think changing our setbacks to allow for it, also revisiting code, and that’s holding a lot of people up.
So to be clear when you’re saying reducing setbacks. You mean like allowing buildings to be built closer to one another?
Correct. Sorry, not making them less restrictive than they are right now. Also, people don’t love being told what to do with their properties. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last three years of doing this, people do not want to be told what to do with their houses. So I think we should empower people to be able to build an ADU if they want that or build above their garage if they want that. I happen to live in a neighborhood that is mostly single-family units. But on my street, We have single family homes and we have, you know, four, six, eight, ten multi-unit buildings.
Do you know what zone you live in?
Oh my god, I should know this. Oh my god. I am in… I have to look this up.
We’re gonna look it up at the end and I’m gonna get back to you. All right. It’s very residential though. But we have multis of lots of different units and single families and we are in harmony with each other. We also do have a lot of space in between our houses. But you know, so but if we’re we’re gonna, I’m not saying we start with presidential neighborhoods. We have tons of municipally owned parking lots with multi-story floors downtown that are empty a lot of the time. We have lots of parking lots that are also empty. They’re privately owned, but you know, sticks and carrots, we can do a lot to incentivize people to build dense, dense housing downtown. And then elsewhere, we squeeze housing in where it makes sense. I don’t think the world’s going to end if I have a four unit next to my house, right? I happen to already have one, so it’s fine. But I think that if we have, we have a housing crisis, right, we talk about property taxes are going up. We talk about how, you know, that is challenging. I want, I want my neighbors to stick around, I want to stick around. We need to build more housing. It’s, it’s the only way through it.
So to just dig in a little bit deeper, so a thing that you’ve rapidly become known for is your big push, you know, as you said, to rezone industrial land, to allow housing to be built. When this has been brought up in the past, the planning staff of Portland have brought up the fact that there’s such a low industrial vacancy rate. Do you think this is a concern or – ?
I’m not concerned by this.
You’re not concerned by it.
I’m not concerned by it. I think that, and I said it before, I’ll say it again, we are not in an industrial use crisis. We are in a housing crisis. I don’t think we need technology parks, which we do have right now, and they are vacant, and they’ve been vacant for a while. Sometimes I do feel a little crazy when we’re talking about this. So listen, planning staff are experts. I respect them. I respect what they do. But I also need to respect the urgency of what we’re doing, what we’re experiencing in our city and what our residents are asking for. And they’re asking for help. So there’s a lot we can do. I think we really need to consider vacancy fees. Bangor is doing it.
I have questions about that later.
All right, there will be more on that momentarily.
So just with regards to, you know, ReCode, you know, as mayor, you’re going to be willing to go up to the planning staff and tell them they’re wrong.
Oh, so, I’ve asked every year for the last three years for the mayor to appoint an ad hoc committee to have just not oversight, just an awareness of ReCode. And every year I’ve been told no. And the reason I asked for that is not because I’m going to micromanage, it’s not who I am. Also, it’s not really our authority as the council to do that with city staff. It’s to know more about what’s going on with this abundance of city resources, time and energy, right? I’ve been on the council for almost three years. This started right before I joined. We’ve had two workshops on it. And we’re just starting to see what it is. And I got to tell you, I have a lot of questions. People, a lot of people have a lot of questions. And if we had maybe worked a little bit closer together over the last three years, we wouldn’t be where we’re at right now. Again, I have a lot of respect for city staff and the planning department. They work really hard. I’m not criticizing them. I’m just saying we have to meet the moment. And we need to streamline these processes. We don’t need to add more types of zones. We don’t need to make it more complicated. This… St. Paul just effectively killed inflation in their city, and they did it by rezoning their city, right?
I think that was Minneapolis.
Minneapolis, I was confused too.
They’re next to each other.
But you know, they met the moment. They’re swinging big, and Portland can do that. We’re small enough, I think, where we can pull it off, and we can do it in a way where we’re still gonna have the things we love about this place. We’re still gonna have our iconic buildings. We’re still gonna have our great downtown. We’re not giving anything up. When I talk to people… who are unsure. “I don’t know. I don’t I don’t want to I don’t want to skyscraper next to my single family.” Well, yeah, no one does.
This sort of brings up a point, which is that, you know, you said that there’s places more obvious places to look before residential neighborhoods. But a lot of the city is residential neighborhoods, and a lot of people want to live in residential neighborhoods. Are you willing to go into, you know, the lower zones and say, yes, we’re going to be changing it. We’re going to make it legal to build denser housing. Or are you going to, you know, try and avoid that?
Yeah, I think… Define what denser housing is in certain neighborhoods.
Yeah, I would say four, like four units, six units. I mean, literally my street does have that. So I’m, it’s, and we are in a very residential neighborhood.
So, actually, that bringing up the four, six thing. One thing about ReCode that they introduced is it used to be just, you know, single family, duplex, then multifamily, so that’s three and up. But now with the, with the ReCode phase two, we see that they’ve made it so one family, two family, three family, four family, and then multifamily, which is five and up. Which, you know, that this could allow more four units, but it would block six units in those neighborhoods. Do you think that’s enough?
I think it depends on how those zones are broken up, right? We have a lot of zones in the city, right? And I think that kind, that’s where the problem is. We have a lot of really nuanced zones, and especially when you start to have them like bump up on each other, that’s where the friction happens. A good example is actually what I was sort of, what I was just talking about, the residential zone that abuts the industrial, the light industrial zone in Bayside. Those are not compatible districts, but they, they’re not, they’re not, in real time, they are right next to each other when it comes to the use of the space, right? That’s why we need to re-envision the space so that it is taking housing into account.
So would you try and simplify the zoning map?
If you’ve never looked at the zoning map, I know you have, but it’s complicated. So you would simplify that?
I would also like to put a plug in for one of my favorite pages on the city’s website is our maps page. It’s a GIS page of every type of map the city has. Zoning is one of them. Please look at it. It’s actually really interesting. People need to understand our zoning so that they can like… You just learn so much more about the city, just like when you look at a district map or the districts of the city. So simplification is the key. And that was my impression of what ReCode is supposed to be. It was always supposed to be with simplifying and streamlining, not just planning, But the next thing we have to do is permitting and inspections, right? And that’s not just for housing and building, but also for businesses, different topic, I know. But those, again, we need to reimagine this. We need to make it easy. easier to build housing in a way that means something with, and again, I cannot emphasize this enough, I’m not advocating for hyper-dense, you know, towers in residential neighborhoods. I would make that argument for downtown where it would make sense.
So other than industrial, do you have any concrete examples for change to the zoning code you’d like to see?
Well, I think the B’s all need to just go be in B5, right? As like the umbrella.
I just look at Washington on…
That wasn’t a disapproving “wow.” Well, if you look at like Washington on the peninsula, right? It’s a short strip right there from Cumberland all the way to the 295. There’s three different B zones right there. Why? I don’t have the answer. So I’m just asking, like, it’s, we don’t need, we don’t, we just don’t need that. And again, I’m not an expert in this, but I, I know enough to know that that feels overly cumbersome. So, you know, I think I live, I’m an off-peninsula City Councilor, love my neighborhood, I live there for a reason, and I fully respect that people bought their houses there or rent their houses there and they want to live in that sort of neighborhood and they are really protective of the character of the neighborhood. I get that. I also want people to know that if you start getting a couple multi-units there… that you only gain from that, you only stand to benefit from that. Not only you’re gonna have new neighbors, your property taxes aren’t gonna be as expensive because there’s gonna be more housing, right? More people paying taxes. So, and I’m always up for this conversation. If anyone listens and like, hey, Zarro, I wanna talk to you about this, I have questions, I want thoughts. I enjoy talking to people about this. This is our way out of the housing crisis.
Well, I’d love to hear more ideas about ReCode, but we can move on for now. Because the other half of that which you’ve already brought up is permitting and inspections.
And with regards to housing, you know, you said, “amend prohibitive permitting or zoning,” we’ve talked about zoning. What’s your plans for permitting?
Speaker 0 | 38:37.536
So permitting, okay. There’s a lot of there’s a lot on this one. So I want I want our listeners to think about this in a couple of ways. So you permitting and inspections for building for housing for regulations, right, checking on short term rental rentals, checking on violations, that sort of thing. Then we have permitting inspections for things like businesses, right? So Let’s do the former and then we’ll do the latter so I don’t break the rules? Okay, so one of the things I hear from a lot of people are that they are really frustrated when they go to, let’s say like built an ADU, right? This is when code and permitting and inspections are really important to also reform. If you ,back to that square footage of your allowable space on your lot, if you’re building, say, an ADU, because you want to rent out a long-term rental to someone. If you exceed more than 50% of your allotted square footage, you’re going to trigger the code so that you have to now outfit your existing infrastructure with sprinkler systems, right? All of a sudden, your project just became three times more expensive. And so, and it’s the ordinance, right? It’s what it is. That needs to change, right? We can’t say we’re incentivizing building housing and then make it really hard to build housing.
So you would change the sprinkler regulation?
I would just make it more, yeah, I mean, I would amend it so that it makes sense so that of course, new and new, new infrastructure for sure. But think about how many buildings in Portland were built in the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s.
My building was 1908.
Even earlier, right? Like you’re not, and they were built well for the most part. So I think that for us to expect Portlanders to have the capacity financially to all of a sudden completely gut renovate their house when all they wanna do is add a unit, that’s nonsense. That’s absolute, what are we doing? And I’m not on the housing committee this year, but I think that should be a priority. That feels like a lift that we can accomplish. You know, we hear a lot, I’ve heard a lot from folks who are trying to build housing, and it’s six months, eight months on permitting and planning. They just don’t hear back. Portland has a reputation of not being a good city to build in. They wanna go to Westbrook. Westbrook wants to brand that.
Why does it take so long?
That’s a great question. I don’t know.
What is Westbrook doing?
Sometimes it feels like Portland tries to get to “no.” And I’m going to say that not because I’m criticizing people.
Oh, like get to N-O, (as opposed to “know.”)
Get to N-O. Get to the answer, no. And I’m saying that not because I want to criticize anyone, but because we have to identify what’s wrong so that we can fix it. And I’m not, I mean, I just hear this a lot, right? We’ve heard this in chambers, people will call in and be like, hey, you made my life a living hell. I’m not gonna follow through, I’m gonna go elsewhere. And other towns in Maine are paying attention to this. And they, you know, they’re making it easier for people.
So what needs to change in concrete terms?
I mean, outside of zoning, which we’ve already covered, we need to revisit the permitting, and the zoning requirements. inspections process so that it’s streamlined. There should be applications that are fast-tracked, and we do have some, but they actually need to be faster. You shouldn’t be expected to wait six to eight weeks. An example is someone who reached out to me about a week ago and is trying to build affordable housing in Portland, went through the planning board, and were, or no, they were going to go to the planning board in August. They started the April and right before the meeting they were told, the day before they were told, “Oh, actually, we’re not going to be able to hear you on this because, you know, ReCode going on and we have all we’re really we’re backed up.” I think it was they were very, they had too many applications. And so it’s a person who lives in my district who sent me an email saying this is absolutely unacceptable. I paid a $7500 application fee. I went through four months of bureaucracy for you to tell me the day before “No, too bad”? And that’s unacceptable. That it is going to be almost impossible to get that person to want to build in Portland again.
Now, I know you said you don’t like pointing fingers. Whose fault is it?
That’s our fault. It’s the City Council’s fault.
City Council’s fault.
We… We know what we need to do. We gotta do it. I’m gonna own our stuff on behalf of the nine of us. This one right now, we can change. And let’s do it, right?
I guess, is there something that’s taking all these weeks to do?
From staff perspective?
Yeah, from staff perspective, like, I mean, why is Westbrook able to go so much faster than us?
I think they’re prioritizing it with a vision they have. I mean, I their mayor is very good at saying, “Hey, Rock Row, we want businesses, we want housing,” right? You need someone who’s going to bring people together under a vision. And that’s kind of what I’m trying to do here. I’m trying to say, this is what we’re going to do. So that means we need to prioritize that from the top down. And I hear you. I’m not, I’m just trying to identify the issues that we need to change so that we can change them. When people are really good at telling you what they need and what they want, we just have to listen. And so that’s why I’m trying to say, I’m owning it, I’m talking about it.
So just day one, tell the city manager, “Get this stuff down to three weeks or less.”
I will say… I know the city manager, who we only officially confirmed a few months ago, is… has prioritized this as well. And so I look forward to working closely with her to making sure that we’re setting attainable goals, this thing, all right, what are we going to accomplish this? When we get through that? But again, it needs to be a streamlined process. We have multiple departments who all send you to a different department. And that’s just that’s a cultural thing, right? We can change that. That’s it. That is that is okay, what’s working and what’s not how and how can the City Council support you in accomplishing your goals?
The other part of that is from a business perspective. Also very challenging. And I think we are proud of our small businesses in Portland. When you think about Portland’s downtown, you think of the vitality of our restaurants, our shops, and our, our creative economy. It is challenging to go through the process. It’s really hard to on the first try, get your I’m speaking from, from personal experience here. It shouldn’t be this massive lift to. go through the process of getting your business license, of getting your health certificate, all that stuff. So, and I think a lot of that does come back to, I just wanna say staffing, right? That’s why we need to be staffing our city, fixing those 250 vacancies, and we do that by hiring and paying people well at the city.
So do you think the planning staff is understaffed? That’s why there’s delays?
Planning or permitting?
We did just give them three new staff people for rent stuff.
So we’d hope they’d be going faster.
We just approved it in July. It was only a month, two months ago. I mean, staffing is definitely a variable. But yeah, we at the end of the day, the people are in charge of the City Council. And so it’s on us to do this. And I want to I, I have this vision. And I have every intention of ensuring that the City Council sees it through.
So bringing up two points from your platform, shifting gears slightly. One thing that you brought up is the idea of climate overlay zones. What is that?
So we know that climate change is very tangibly here. And the city of Portland is a coastal city. We are really unique in that we have island communities who I was speaking to a bunch of Islanders recently and they are visibly noticing parts of their land disappearing with sea level rise. Parts of commercial street are underwater at high tide. It’s only gonna get worse, parts of Back Cove, right? That’s one of the maps if you go on the city’s website, one of the maps is the climate.
I love maps! So the climate overlay, and that’s something I’ll give city staff credit for because they are aware of that and they’re working on it. It’s prioritizing parts of the city where climate is going to impact our city. And so, again, land use is really important for what the city, land use is a tool where the city can be impactful. And so identifying those areas as priority areas for, okay, How are we going to deal with this? Is Commercial Street just going to be gone in 20 years? Or are we going to start working now on a Commercial 2050 plan for all of the wharfs and the businesses and the buildings? Are we going to build up? Because if we do nothing, we are going to lose one of our working waterfront and one of our most iconic parts of our city. So I think through zoning, we can establish a priority of districts that get special attention and they get to be part of the city. They require it actually.
They require, we need to treat them differently.
If a property owner had their property inside one of these climate overlay zones, what would that mean?
I mean, from insurance to everything, They’re going to be dealing with very different uses than a property that’s inland. I think one thing that comes to mind a lot of the use of, you know, a lot of the wharfs are under underwater at high tide, right? That infrastructure comes at a cost. Same with all of the islands, right? What is it? Cushing’s Island [sic], their dock is extremely tall, and this winter it was underwater. So, I mean, from an infrastructure perspective, we just, if we’re going to be building there, we need to build differently. We can’t be green lighting a hotel near the waterfront that’s going to be underwater in 10 years.
So if you were to build or modify anything there, it would just get some extra attention from an environmental perspective.
Well, yeah, I mean, from and that’s one of the reasons why I’m really sensitive to building on the waterfront. Because there is an environmental impact. And I’ve asked for them before from the plant anytime the planning board send us something, I always be sure to I always try my best to ask, Can you please send along an environmental impact memo with it, but it’s also just kind of common sense. If we’re gonna build in areas that we know are going to be impacted by sea level rise, then we’re, we’re gonna have to do it differently, right?
Makes sense. Another thing you brought up in your platform is quote, benefit districts. And I was a little bit confused by that. What exactly?
Think of it as a, like a business improvement district or a a TIF. Parts of the city that are primed for housing.
And for those who don’t know what TIF means –
Tax increment financing. So, which is a tool that the city uses to subsidize affordable housing. And we are able to help builder developers, you know, provide affordable housing by, by offsetting taxes. Okay, so a benefit district is a way for us to say we are going to focus on this part of the city, and we are going to use all of our tools in our toolbox, right? And TIFs are a big part of that. So Forest Ave, Woodford’s Corner are always the first ones that come to mind for me because they are, they are zoned and ready to go, right? Think they are, uh, right on major transit corridors, and they’re close to everything, like they are abutting four residential neighborhoods that all converge on that area. So I would like to see us work closely with developers to prioritize districts at a time. So we say Forest Ave, Woodford’s Corner are going to be where we’re going to put all of our energy to incentivize people to build affordable housing, and we’re going to go for it. And then once we’ve accomplished that, we move over to Brighton, and then we move over to Stevens, and then we move over to wherever. But they’re districts that are created where we are emphasizing affordable housing development. And where it is lacking, which I guess the argument is it’s lacking everywhere.
You know, maybe this would be a silly question, but why can’t the whole city be in benefit districts?
I think the intention is to sort of build these communities all at once. I mean, Forest Ave strangely has no housing on it. Like if you think about it, it was built for cars, right? It’s a highway. But if you think about Forest Ave, Why wouldn’t… I would want to live on Forest Ave in an apartment if there was one there? Heck yeah! Like, but there’s none, right? It’s intent. Your goal is to get through Forest Ave and maybe don’t bump into construction if you can. And so I think being really intentional where we’re funneling and channeling our resources for affordable housing is going to likely be more successful then right now, which is which is our TIF policy, right? You know, we can create a TIF if we if we get the request. And I’m not saying one or the other. I’m saying both/and. I think if we are intentional with working with our with developers, because the city is not a developer of saying this is this is what we want to accomplish, help us accomplish it. And we will we will work with you way more likely to happen. And it’s also it’s saying this is our vision. This is what we’re trying to do. People want a vision.
So shifting gears, in 1960, Portland accounted for 39.7% of Cumberland County’s population. In 1990, the figure was still 26.5%, but by 2020 it had dropped to just 12.7% of Cumberland County’s population. Do you see this as a failure on Portland’s part to respond to growth? Or is this just a natural part of a….
That’s not natural, that was designed. That’s sprawl. That is good old fashioned sprawl, which happens all over the place. Portland, we’re the big city, right? There are people who move here from parts of Maine who genuinely look at Portland as if it were Manhattan, right?
I did, I mean. I mean, in Hancock County, Portland is like New York City.
It is, but we haven’t done a good job of keeping people here. And there’s a bunch of reasons why. Housing is a huge part of it. I think when you demolish a neighborhood, that’s a great way of saying, eh, we don’t need that many people. But, so no, I don’t think Portland’s been good at that, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get better at it. People wanna live here. It’s a great city. And even though we have a ton of issues, just like anyone else, it doesn’t mean we don’t still love it for what it is. So I would love to prioritize, and I will prioritize, changing that. I don’t want people to have to move to Standish or Gorham or, you know, Livermore because they can’t afford to live here. And I certainly don’t want them to have to commute in and buy their car for work if they’d rather live here. You know, we need to create a place, a city where people live, work and play. And so that’s, I mean, I hope that comes across in my platform, but that’s absolutely a priority for me.
Hmm. Hear that Standish?
But don’t get me wrong, I love Standish. I go apple picking there. I just want if you want to live in Portland, I want you to be able to.
Of course. Shifting gears again. Airbnb. It’s been a hot topic of discussion. There have been many attempts to regulate it by a referendum, all of which so far have failed. New York City just recently implemented what amounts to a total ban on Airbnb in city limits, or short-term rentals in general. Critics claim that it takes away long-term housing stock and worsens the shortage. Others doubt it has much of an impact either way. Would you do anything to address short-term rentals as mayor?
How did I know you were gonna do this? Bring this one up?
I don’t know.
So okay, so COVID did a lot of things, including exposing fractures that existed in a lot of communities and markets. And I think this is one of them. So we’ve seen All right, so you named the two referenda, they both failed when it came to short-term rentals. And I think for certain reasons, they failed for very particular reasons. But we have a community, our community is not a monolith, our housing community, we have very different types of neighborhoods. We have the islands, which I think are the most thought of when you think of short-term rentals, right? But we also have regulated, we regulate short-term rentals here. We have 400 licenses for non-owner occupied, right? And I, the other day, was able to sit down and see an analysis of our short-term rentals that were posted and rented in Portland in the last four months. And remember, the number’s 400, and it was about 1,040 something, right? So what does that tell you? Well, that tells you that people are renting short-term rentals when they’re not supposed to be.” And so we have policies to regulate that, right? I think that comes back to capacity of city staff being able to follow up and say, “Wait a minute, you’re not renting that the way you’re supposed to be.” Or “Where’s your permit? Where’s your license?”
We have to be realistic about… Because we’re in a housing crisis, that means things have to change. And we don’t want to be in a housing crisis forever, and we won’t be, because we’re going to fix it. But I think we need to be realistic about how we’re going to approach short-term rentals while being in a housing crisis, while seeing people not be able to afford to live here and work here. That’s why I’m talking a lot about vacancy fees. I think that that’s a really good approach for any unit that is vacant for more than 181 days. And we do have those, right? That’s a thing in Portland while we have a housing crisis. So I think that… from a policy perspective is something we can do to regulate and incentivize people to say, all right, I’m gonna rent this out long-term for a year. And that doesn’t have to be a forever thing. That can just be a temporary thing until we get out of this.
So to be clear, are you saying that, so it sounds like first of all, you wanna focus on enforcement.
We have to focus on enforcement. Otherwise, why does the ordinance-
You can regulate anything you want. If you don’t enforce it, then what’s the point?
And in terms of introducing new restrictions, you would, or you would want to at least, you’re not a dictator. But if you were to be elected as mayor, then you would want to see…
Well, I also think the City Council has to have that conversation. I want to have that conversation, not only because we’ve seen several referenda, which tells me that we’re not doing what people want us to do, but also things have changed quickly. Our housing market has changed pretty quickly in the past few years. And so that we have to stay on top of it as things change, because that means our policies might need to change. But absolutely regulation and following through is the missed opportunity for us as a municipality.
So you had proposed some sort of further restriction?
Yes, yeah. But I also think the vacancy fee is a step in the right direction.
Let’s talk about the vacancy fee. I’ve kept you waiting on that one.
I feel like I’ve already talked all about it.
Well, so, your platform talks about imposing some form of vacancy fee on properties which are not lived in for more than six months out of the year. Is that correct?
Is that legal?
I’m so glad you asked that.
Because last year, a state bill sponsored by Rep. Christopher Kessler failed, with all Republicans and some Democrats opposing. The point of that bill would have explicitly allowed municipalities to charge vacancy taxes because as it stands it would appear so title 30-A of Maine’s revised statutes, would appear to prevent municipalities that is towns and cities from imposing such vacancy fees, vacancy taxes. Would you go forward with this even if it means facing a legal challenge?
Okay so here’s how you get around it.
You have a unit it’s been vacant for 181 days.
You don’t live on the islands, by the way, because this would not apply to the islands.
Very different housing market over there. Also, a lot of them don’t live there year-round. So you’re you’re… You have a unit it’s been vacant 181 days. So you now will come to the city or do it online, we’ll make it easy for you. And you’re going to register that you have a vacant unit. And there’s a fee with that.
So Title 30-A of the Maine revised statutes, I’m not an attorney, I’m not trying to shoot down your idea, but I want to provide context here. It states that fees levied by municipalities for permits must correspond with the cost to the city for those uses, for whatever the permit is for, give or take, more or less. Again, there’s a reason that Christopher Kessler thought that a state bill was necessary for this. Do you think there would be a legal challenge?
Well, first of all, there’s almost always legal challenge.
Do you think there would be a non-frivolous legal challenge?
I think there’s precedent because the city of Bangor has already done this. OK. And it’s existed for a little while. It excludes snowbirds, as they call them. But I think that…
If it excludes snowbirds, who are we talking about?
Theirs is an interesting ordinance. I’ll send it to you afterwards. But I think that this is a legal challenge. because there’s precedent. I hear what you’re saying, 100%. Yeah.
Oh, and I’m not opposing it. I’m asking.
You know what I would love? If the state would pass local options tax, right? But that’s been tried many times. It’s not going to happen. But the point is the municipality, you’re right, cannot tax, other than property tax. We’re not allowed to do that. But this, I think, is a little different. There is precedent with the city of Bangor, and it’s not a, “You have to pay this fee.” It’s not a “You got to do this beforehand.” It’s after X number of days. You know, you’re going to say, oh, I’m going to keep it vacant.
And if a house is kept vacant for 181 days or more and they don’t apply for this vacant house permit, what happens?
You’re talking about enforcement.
I guess so, but I mean –
Which clearly we need to do better on. Hey, my goal here is pretty obvious. It’s to get people to rent their units that are empty for a long-term rental, right? And I think people self-select into that. I think when people are like, hey, this is what’s going on. This is what the city wants us to do. I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna be a good participant in this. There’s always gonna be someone who’s gonna try to pull something off, but… I keep coming back to my North Star, which is we have to take this seriously. And that means we have to start talking about things that we haven’t talked about before. If to your point, if someone says, you know, we absolutely cannot do this. It’s just, you know, it’s against the rules. Then we cross that bridge. What was the harm in having the conversation? What was the harm in acknowledging the fact that this is serious and other and other cities are already doing this? I mean, Bangor, you know, Cheers to them. I mean, they’re taking it seriously. Why can’t we?
Your platform also talks about strengthening tenant protections. We’ve had two referenda on this subject in 2020 and 2022. What element of tenant protections do you think needs to be strengthened?
So right now, I’ve heard from a lot of people who are just not getting follow up on the existing, if they have a complaint, if they are reaching out to the rent board, if they’re reaching out to staff, they’re just talk about not getting the enforcement. I’ve been working very closely with a lot of constituents in my district. So when I talk about that, I’m talking about, we have laws right now on the books that guarantee x, y and z for tenant protections. And we’re, we’re, we need to be better at ensuring that they are being heard.
So it comes back to enforcement.
We are we are coming. We have a theme here, ladies and gentlemen. So I think, you know, we need to be really intentional of honoring the laws that do exist right now. I mean, you’re right, two referenda dictated where we are right now.
Okay, so it seems like it’s mostly a matter of enforcing the laws which are already on the books, you know, using those resources which we’re already supposed to be doing to help people, less so introducing any… big new policies?
I mean, we have we have substantial policies that were passed, right?
Yeah, for sure.
Yeah, those were those were significant. But, but again, back to what I was saying before, if people have really specific needs, also, the issue with referendas, we can’t change them for five years, unless we put them out for, for vote on the ballot. So I think this is this is also where you know, we need to continue to do better to work closely with tenants on what needs are and aren’t being met.
All right, and then you also describe, and this touches on more than just housing, but you describe a racial equity plan that should be developed to inform your housing policy as well as other parts of your agenda. What would this actually mean in practice? Like what role would race play in your housing policy?
Yeah, I mean, racial justice is housing justice is climate justice, like these are all intertwined. I think that being real, I mean, we have a new department, a new department head, that’s job is to is to roll this into every facet of government, right? And we just appointed Umaru a few months ago, and he’s hiring city staff. He has a council committee that we’ll be meeting soon. It’s our job to make sure he’s successful. And we’re successful in doing that through our housing policies. We’re successful in doing that with our One Climate Future, right? So actually, I feel like I brought that up in almost every part of my policy platforms because it’s everywhere.
Yeah, you and on your campaign website, you mentioned it almost every subject. I suppose I was just like, asking for some more specificity as to how that would actually –
Like, could you give a concrete example? Maybe?
I mean, I think it’s it’s, it’s no secret that some of the most housing insecure people are people of color, are people in the LGBTQ+ community, are immigrants. That’s not a Portland thing, that’s everywhere. And so that means we need to be really intentional about supporting housing policies that make sure that those people are getting access to adequate housing. A good example is the Equality Center is building 60 units of affordable housing for LGBTQ plus seniors on Casco Street, right over there. And we were providing a TIF.
Yeah, and what’s interesting about that one is that technically speaking – because I was curious and I was reading their document – they can’t actually only offer units to LGBT people. It’s open to everybody, but they hope that by sort of theming it, so to speak, to the LGBT community, that that’s mostly who they’ll be serving. And so it sounds like you would just want to give maybe extra council support to those sorts of projects?
Yeah, I mean, I would love to see that. You’re right, people can’t, you know, it has to be open for everyone. But I think being really intentional with supporting projects that have, you know, examples like that of people who are trying, they’re trying to equal out the discrepancies and inequities that exist in our society and housing, you know, dignified, safe housing for our underserved communities is really important to me. So while yes, there are there are complicated legal nuances in that, I think we can still set the intention of saying that housing justice is racial justice, right? And being supportive by funding our department with our new department head, and walking the walk, not just talking about it, you know?
Anything else you want to mention about housing? That was definitely our longest section.
We need to build more.
Yeah, build more housing. So, want to talk a little about transportation infrastructure, because infrastructure is also something you talk a lot about in your platform.
Transportation and Infrastructure
A large part of your policy platform is dedicated to expanding Portland’s pedestrian and cycling infrastructure. Would you like to elaborate on that at all?
I would. So I say it a lot cities are for people, right? We happen to have a lot of infrastructure that supports cars, and that’s okay, I have a car. But I think we need to do a better job of creating multimodal opportunities for people to get around. And so I’m, I feel like I need to out myself. I’m a cyclist.
I know, I know. I know, I feel better already telling you. So I like to bike. I think it’s one of the best ways to get around town and I encourage all of you to do it. Our bike infrastructure is not awesome. Biking in Portland can be pretty scary, but we can change it. And so I’ve already been working on that in my committee in the last few years of creating opportunities for us to have designated bike lanes that have a median between them. And so we have a pilot that we’ve been working on, but also not everyone wants to bike and that’s cool. You might wanna walk. You should be able to, you should be able to get around your city without feeling like you are in a place where you’re not allowed to, not walking on a safe sidewalk or one that’s not plowed or one that has bricks falling into the street, right? Or in my neighborhood, every other house has a sidewalk. It’s very weird. So prioritizing that infrastructure for people is really important to me because I like it.
There’s other things that we do that is actually really good for our economy, right? I sponsored closing lower Exchange Street on Sundays. people love it. Businesses have been loving it. People are the it was really funny the first couple weeks, people wouldn’t go into the street, they were conditioned not to go into the street. And now on Sunday, you’re seeing people like having fun, they’re outside with their bikes and benches, like we should be activating our communities, we should be prioritizing a complete streets model, where… I used to be a Main Street director. You want to give people 10 things to do when they’re in a district, a downtown. One of those things is transportation. It’s biking. So one thing that I’ve been working on that I hope to accomplish soon is taking State Street and High Street and making them two ways again. Like they used to be before they were through-ways. [accidentally strikes microphone] I’m Italian, I’m very animated with my hands.
You’ve been moving your hands this entire interview. I want everybody to know this.
You know, there are things we can do that are actually more tangible than we think. And I know culturally we are very car centered, but that is changing. I just wanted to change a little bit quickly. And again, I can’t say it enough, cities are for people. So. prioritizing that infrastructure, making sure that every time we’re restriping a road, we’re doing it with bikes in mind. I’ll be honest with you. There are certain streets in Portland I don’t bike on. Forest is one of them. I just won’t do it. It’s not worth my psychological and physical safety. That’s not okay. We need to… that cuts through the whole city. So I’m all about re-envisioning the way we get around. I’m also on the Portland Metro board. I’m on the ridership committee. We are almost pre-pandemic ridership levels.
I will say I went to college in Burlington, Vermont. They have Church Street and of course, which is this huge pedestrian-only boulevard. It’s great. I love that. So that’s you know, if Portland wants to get something like that, I think that would be very cool.
I do too.
That’s my only opinion in this entire interview. As part of your, you know green transportation network that you describe. Do you want to enable and encourage car-free lifestyles per se or is this more recreational?
No, I would love to. If you want to live in Portland, you want to be car-free, I want to help you do that. Right? For lots of reasons, right? The obvious one is most, I used to work for a car share organization. Your car spends most of its life parked. So you’re wasting money on it actually. We should give people lots of other ways to get around, whether it’s the bus, whether it’s biking or walking, like that should be normalized. So I think that’s how we should be looking at infrastructure. And with that, it’s going to be challenging to maybe choose your car. And that is a big picture cultural change. I want to be clear. I’m not trying to take everyone’s car away. That’s not what I’m doing. I’m not crazy. I just want to give people options if they want to get around. The recreational component is great though. That’s for everyone. If you want to go for a bike ride on the back of trail and go down to the food. Cool. Do that. But. This is about getting people to and from places where they work, where they are meeting up for friends with a beer. Like I don’t, I want, I envision a Portland where your first thought of how am I going to get downtown is not, I’m going to get my car.
Well, Portland has a lot of street parking, speaking of cars. And in a recent City Council vote, you seemed positively in pain. when you were considering your vote to expand free parking spots for island residents. You ultimately voted in favor. But do you feel as though Portland underutilizes its resources in the form of public parking? And would you try to expand enforcement hours or?
Yeah, so we have we actually surprisingly, and the data shows that we do have sufficient parking in the city of Portland. Most people might say, no, we don’t. But technically, if you look at the numbers we do, I mean, our Elm Street parking garage, which is municipally owned is, is rarely at capacity. So I always encourage people to park there. It’s less expensive than the other the privatized companies. It’s a Portland hack.
Pro tip. You know. I feel like that vote was really unique because that had to do with island communities.
And they have a really, they just have the most specific needs that, you know, I don’t live on an island, although I romanticize living on one of the islands, but I get it, it’s harder, it’s harder to come and go. And I love the ferry, so that is a cool means of transportation. Sorry, can you please remind me of the question?
Street parking. If you were a mayor, would you change anything about street parking? Would you try to expand enforcement hours, bring more metered parking to what’s currently free –
So street parking for me is kind of funny because I never try it.
Because it’s not worth my time. You know, I am always respectful and understanding of people who specifically work in service and hospitality. A lot of them park on streets and at night, and they get there right about that weird time. We did expand ours in not this year’s budget, but last year’s budget in parts of the Old Port and the Arts District, and we used that funding… That was my argument to use that funding to expand the budget for the Sustainability Department. So we hired two full-time people for Sustainability, so we tripled the size of the department. And we did that by expanding the time to pay for parking in certain parts of the city. I think that our, you know, and this is just me, I know parking is a lightning rod for a lot of people. I think actually for the biggest city in the state our parking is not that bad. I’m talking about municipal parking, I’m talking about meters, I’m talking about our lot. I’m not talking about the private ones. They’re very expensive. I do not park there. I think Portland has an opportunity to create a municipal transportation authority that has more of a regulatory oversight into parking. We don’t have that. We have a parking director. It’s a very cool guy. He’s very funny. Everyone yells at him.
He loves parking though.
He loves parking, and he knows so much about it. So I think we have ways of managing, you know, I’m thinking about parking lots. Think about all the vacant parking lots downtown. You know what could be there?
Housing. Literally anything actually, because that use of just those massive vacant lots is just not great. So I’ve always been a proponent of transportation authority because I think it gives the city more credibility and authority of taking parking issues seriously. So one of the biggest issues I hear about when it comes to street parking is street sweeping. Don’t have it in my neighborhood, but in districts one and two, it’s a big issue for people. We need to actually do a little bit more to hear people on that because that’s where I find most parking ticket incidents happen. But it’s a tool. I think parking, the way we charge for parking is one of the tools in the toolbox when it comes to incentivizing bike-ped means of transportation.
And also potentially public transportation, which is why my next question was going to be that you’d like to “expand public transportation options.” What does that mean, expanding options?
So one thing that we’re doing right now, which is really cool in the Metro is, it may have just ended actually, is we’re making it extremely affordable to take the bus. We wanna incentivize people to take the bus. I think Portland needs to do more of working with the Metro to subsidize bus fares so that you can take it.
Is price the reason most people don’t take the bus?
Great question. So you would think that that’s a big factor, right? And for some people it is… You can’t see facial expressions, but they’re pretty good. For some people, it’s not. But for others, it is. If you are a low-income individual, that’s a variable for you. It’s in your budget. So I wanna help where it’s the easiest lift for people. And so I think making that investment is certainly a part of it. I have big dreams for transportation. What if we had a Woodford’s Corner stop for the Amtrak on its way up to Brunswick, right?
The Northern New England Rail Authority… okay I can’t remember, it’s a long acronym. But they’re of course considering moving the Amtrak station back to its old home, back where Union Station used to be off St. John.
Wasn’t that just acquired by MaineMed?
Yes, it was.
I wonder if that changes the plans.
Well, this is this has been brought up since. Would you encourage that move to bring it back to downtown?
Yes. Are you kidding me? That would be amazing. It’s… I love the train and I even love taking the bus down to Boston. But getting over to Thompson’s Point isn’t easy. So if I can walk downtown, you kidding me? I’d get on the train all the time.
Go down to Boston?
That’s certainly an option. But in terms of expanding public transportation options –
Oh, okay. Sorry, I got distracted. So one thing that I’m really passionate about is a rapid bus transit option. So those we’ve had a couple of studies that came to my committee, GPCOG is working on this. So a rapid bus transit is a really great way to get around quickly. It’s pretty self-explanatory in the name, you’re talking designated lanes, it’s a way for you to get from, you know, Scarborough to Portland in no time. It’s really popular in a lot of Midwestern cities like Cincinnati, Cleveland, they have really good efficient systems.
And what makes bus rapid transit different from just a bus?
I’ll have to send you the study. Lots of things, but primarily, like we’re talking about designated lanes where people are like you’re moving. Okay, so it’s not it’s it’s saying the car is not the priority. Public transportation is the priority. And it would be doing it would be a regional approach. It’s not just Portland has its own system, right? This is this is a big picture thing. And it’s about getting people who do want to live outside of Portland into Portland, without having to choose their car.
And for the GPCOG, the Greater Portland Coalition of Governments, in case you haven’t figured out that acronym –
Yes, Council of Governments.
Oh, you’re right. They said that it could take up to 10 years to implement. You know, why does it take so long for these things to happen?
Well, I think it’s because we’ve normalized not doing things for a really long time. So when you start to do them, 10 years is a long time, but it’ll be here before we know it. And I think we’ll be really grateful in 10 years when we start to do things like build 10,000 units of housing, or create a rapid bus transit system. Yeah, I wish these things were quicker too. God, there’s urgency now, unlike I’ve ever felt it. But that’s, you know, Generationally, I think I’m programmed this way, right? I just turned 35. I feel like for a lot of my peers, we’ve always been told, you know, sit down and wait, sit down and wait. And I think it’s time to do something like it’s time to actually respond to the needs of our time. And the needs of our time are substantial. But you know, I have a couple of young nieces and nephews. I want them to have some good stuff for them when the time comes in Portland. So, you’re right, things like this will take a while and a lot of investment, but it’s on us to do it.
My last question on the subject is that you made a point, which caught my eye, of moving from “complaint-based maintenance” to “regular maintenance.” What the hell does that mean?
Oh my god. It’s I’m such a I’m a nerd sometimes Okay, so a couple meetings ago in Sustainability and Transportation I had a street light audit because for the last three years we had, I don’t know the exact numbers, but at one point in the last few years we had over 600 outages of street lights.
Oh my god.
Which is bad and so that and that good news is we’re just, we’re like under 60 outages right now. So we’ve really fixed that situation. But the reason why that happens, so you think about being understaffed, think about, you know, who owns this light? Is it CMP? Is it the city? Oh, the consultant or the contractor is not responding. So one of the best ways to prevent those sort of issues from happening for streetlights or even things like sidewalks is instead of a complaint based, “Oh, the streetlight’s out, fix it, Zarro.” And now I get, is okay, it’s gonna be fixed.
Yeah, I would be honored. It has a schedule, right? So it’s going to be fixed based on, okay, we know this bulb has a life of three years, whatever, blah, blah, blah. It’s based on a schedule. And so it doesn’t go out, it gets replaced. And what’s really cool-
So we don’t have anything like that right now?
No, you send me an email and say, “why is this wrong?” And I say, “I’m cc-ing the city manager.” But what’s really cool about that is there have been studies done in other cities that it shows specifically in neighborhoods where we have predominantly underserved communities that it reduces crime. It is more like community is built. It has a lot of other effects to it where there’s just like a lot of positives to it. There’s no, let me say, there’s no reason not to adopt this policy because it just helps. It’s also, you have to take one less thing out of your day to complain about a streetlight, you know?
Yeah, I mean, as somebody that has very rarely thought about infrastructure maintenance, I just sort of assumed something like that existed. So I suppose not. All right. Well, do you have any other thoughts about transportation and infrastructure? Before we move on?
I have one on infrastructure. It’s not transportation. It’s climate. It’s like climate infrastructure. Are we gonna do climate?
Now’s the time.
Now’s the time for climate. Yeah, you heard it here first. Um, one thing that I’m really like, one of the things I’m most passionate about is climate, and what we’re going to do to mitigate the effects, but also adapt where we need to. But I’ve been working since last two batches ago, three batches ago of referenda. I’ve been working on upgrading the electrical grid of our city. And so we are actually about to have in my committee a feasibility study that we ordered a year ago on what it’s going to take to increase the electrical grid of the city of Portland.
And I called CMP to the table, they presented to us last year. And so once we do that, once we know what that feasibility study is going to tell us, from there I will be working with the city, and I will be working with the city and our congressional delegation to get federal funds to do just that. It is talk about a big project, but it is going to substantially change the quality of life of Portland. We have to do it. I’ve talked about this earlier tonight. We have an archaic grid. But we have no choice. We can’t wait. We can’t do nothing. Because if we’re going to electrify everything like our pilot, our second iteration of our pilot is doing, if we’re going to build 10 to 12,000 units of housing, we have no choice, right? We have to do that. So that’s just to round out infrastructure. That is something that I’m really passionate about and have already been working pretty diligently on. So I hope that by this time next year, we are much closer to making that happen. And there’s no reason not to, like we’ve been working on it for a year now.
All right, that’s exciting. Okay, so for our last section, which will probably also be the shortest, I want to talk a little bit about business and labor in Portland.
Business and Labor
We’ve already talked a bit about a lot of this already, because it sort of pops in and out. but you were talking about business permitting. You wanted to get back to that. Did you want to bring up how you would modify permitting with regards to business?
Well, yes, I feel like I already kind of got to that one. I guess just to reiterate, I think it does need to be streamlined. It’s not… It’s just it’s too many departments pointing you in a different direction. And that city staff doesn’t want to deal with that. And the business doesn’t want to deal with that right. There’s no reason why you should wait weeks or months to get a permit. It’s just that’s an easy fix is what I’m trying to say.
And you described that as a, almost a cultural issue earlier in terms of how it’s –
And organizationally. The way you structure departments. And I will say the city manager and I have been working on, on that. We’ve talked about it. I think the mayor’s the difference between the District Four City Councilor and the Mayor, is that the Mayor can say, right, let’s put a timeline on this, we got to do it. And I have every intention of seeing that through because we want to see successful small business.
So do you mean like merging departments or –
What would you merge?
Well, so I think I think business licensing… So it I guess it does I should say asterisk it depends what you’re doing. Right, if you if you are doing something that involves zoning then you have to have zoning if you’re doing something that does require a change of use then you need planning right? But when it comes to business licensing like that should be very straightforward. There’s also like health and safety fire code. There’s four or five, sometimes six departments that you’re interacting with when you’re opening your business or when you’re interacting with it. So maybe not necessarily converging five very different departments on each other, but having a designated position or positions whose job is to say, well, Ashley, you’re opening this business and you need to do this, this, this, and this. So my job is to work with you to make sure that you get this, this, this, and this done from these departments. so that you don’t have to chase them all down and lose your mind in the process of doing it.
So instead of, you know, if I was a hypothetically a business owner, instead of going to like the five different spigots across five different departments, I would go to one source.
That would sort of handle all of that.
And they’re, yeah, basically, I don’t know, a glorified project manager, because I gotta say it is confusing. Talk to any business owner in Portland, and they’re just like, yeah, well, that was terrible. Or that added three months. You know, we don’t want to have a bad taste. I want to make people excited about municipal government again. I really do. And I think the way you do that is make them have a pleasant experience with municipal government.
All right. So it sounds like that’s a pretty big challenge that you feel faces business owners. Is there any other major challenges that you feel face Maine’s business community?
Well, there’s a couple, but I want to put something out there that I think is really cool that does help Maine’s business community. So it’s procurement policies. And a procurement policy is how you spend your money in the municipality. It’s how we get our paper to print. It’s where we get our pencils. It’s where, you know, that sort of thing.
And you have a policy in your platform, which is basically about local procurement.
That is correct.
Buying things locally in the greater Portland area instead of buying them from further afield.
Local first if it’s an option.
Yeah, well of course. Is there something in part, you know, is there an example of something that we could be buying locally that we’re not?
Well, yeah, just a quick plug. We know that for every dollar spent locally about 74 cents stays locally, whereas for you spend a dollar on Amazon, you’re not going to see any of that money in the local economy. I mean, right now I will say between the public school department, I just had a great conversation with the new superintendent the other day about this, but between the public, the school department and the city, we spend a ton of money on Amazon, ton of money in our procurement, just on office supplies, that sort of thing. One great thing is right now we service our school buses in South Portland, we could service them in Portland, right? That’s still very close municipalities, maybe not the best example, but there’s no reason for us to, that’s hyper local. That is like. We’re doing it in city hall.
So instead of buying office supplies from Amazon, you buy them from, what, Staples in Scarborough?
I don’t know. No, that’s still an out-of-state company. No, I mean, and again, I want to put the asterisk of if available, there are going to be things that you cannot get locally, but that’s okay. But it’s making a commitment to our local economy. Again, we know if we spend locally, it stays locally. And we’re supporting local businesses, right? And I think that’s really great. I think businesses, could certainly use the support, but to see that investment from the municipality, which is funded by taxpayers’ dollars, I would like to think taxpayers also wanna see their money stay locally, right? So, and there are cities who have done this all over the country, and it is one of the most celebrated municipal policies out there, because people wanna see money stay locally.
I’m sure it would help a lot of local businesses. I have to ask, again, not trying to tear you down or anything, but how much more would this cost? I mean, you know, like, unfortunately, buying locally often, unfortunately, costs more than buying from Faceless Megacorporation 7.
Yeah, well, I think it depends on what it is, right? If we’re talking about paper goods versus, it’s late, my brain’s not working, versus cars.
Yeah, we’ve been at this for a while.
It does depend. I want to be financially responsible about that. But I think that that’s where having a procurement policy that says, you know, if you know, spend locally, if x, if not, then go regionally, if not regionally, then go tri-state, if not tri-state go nationally, right? I think having a really specific policy that allows that wiggle room. I just don’t want us to go right to the big box stores. Like that just doesn’t feel necessary. We have, I, Maine often, we’re vacation land, right? People treat us as if we’re just a tourist economy. We’re not, we’re a year-round economy. We’re the biggest city in the state. And I think we should act like it. While being obviously responsible to costs. But I think that, I asked for it to be explored a couple of times in committee. I think it is something that is well worth the conversation.
I got to ask, you mentioned at one point the term “blue industry.” What does that mean? I googled that and I got men’s shirts.
I think not enough people are talking about it.
What is a blue economy?
Genuinely could have been a typo. Blue economy. So like aquaculture. Think about, you know, we have a working waterfront. So anything that is like innovation for, you know, green and blue, or, you know, green tech, blue tech. Think about, you know, people who are sequestering CO2 with kelp by sinking kelp, right? OK, that’s an example.
All right. So green, the intersection of green industry and maritime industries.
Exactly. We also just had this week, there’s like a big national conference in Portland on the blue economy. Great.
I saw that term in your policy platform and I had no idea what it meant. I said green and blue industries and I was like, what does that mean? All right. You also said you want to expand the small business development program in Portland.
Yes. So I think it would be really cool to see us actually provide like financing opportunities for small businesses. We do it. We just released a new micro enterprise program. But I think that those are really successful. They go quickly, right? People take advantage of them. And I think that those are really great ways to support small businesses. And they can have little, if it’s a micro loan, right? We can do small interest rates and that’s revenue producing for the city, right? So it’s a way to help bridge funding for businesses who meet certain criteria, right? So we want them to hire locally. So we can sort of attach those criteria to those funding options. But I mean, for me, if I had my way, I would kind of how we work with Portland Downtown and Creative Portland as these organizations that we fund. I would love to see us do that with a local first, right? I would love to see us, as the city prioritize local small businesses, because we know the return on investment, the numbers are there, it’s significant. And it’s not to say we don’t wanna support the other ones, we need other types of business here as well, but those are the backbone of our economy. When people think of Portland, that’s what they’re thinking about.
On the theme of things that have come up in referenda frequently, the minimum wage issue in Portland has come up multiple times. How do you feel? Would you try to make any changes to the situation as it stands?
So if you remember, I don’t think I knew yet. If you remember in 2021, when I was on HEDC, I asked for us to visit the minimum wage in committee, we got pretty far. We even had the Maine Center for Economic Policy come and present to us on what the livable wage for the city, the our region is. The next week is when the referenda came back.
I remember that.
The irony was that we were working on it. So, we… Oh, goodness, it’s been a couple years. So at this point, it’s probably changed, but at the time, I believe the suggested livable wage was around $18. I can’t remember. I don’t want to I don’t want to speculate because I cannot remember. So it’s crazy how in such a short period of time, you know, the fifth, the new… Like 18, the new 15. Right. You know, for me, when I was a small business owner, I always prioritize paying people a little wage, health insurance, that sort of thing. I think most businesses in Portland do that. I think I think we have a lot of really good small businesses in Portland. There are some that are not. whatever, that’s everywhere. That’s any industry, there’s always gonna be someone who’s not, you know, the best. But I think that, I mean, I’m very supportive of paying people a livable wage. I’m very supportive of our unions. I’m very supportive of ensuring that the people who work in Portland can live here. I’m actually surprised there’s not another I’m surprised we didn’t talk about minimum wage this year.
What would you try to do as mayor? In terms of policy. It’s okay if you haven’t decided.
Well to be honest I haven’t… There’s a lot on my platform.
There’s a lot on your platform.
I mean, I want to be supportive of our unions and labor and paying people a livable wage. And if that means we are not… Here’s one thing I do want to say that I am absolutely supportive of. Okay. Referenda don’t apply to city staff. So our city staff are not reaping the benefits of the referenda that increased minimum wage a couple years ago.
I didn’t know that.
Oh yeah. So… we should fix that. And I’ve talked about that before. And it might not affect everyone, right, but it’s going to affect some staff members.
And when you say fix that, you don’t mean make referenda apply to city staff.
No, that’s internal. That’s us saying, “hey, hey, city manager, we got to, let’s make it, let’s make it right.” So that 100%, because that’s not, that’s just not fair, right? And I don’t know the numbers of how many that would impact, it might not impact that many at all, for all I know. But I do know that that that exists, that disparity does exist in some capacity.
And you also talked about supporting unions, talked about supporting unions throughout this entire interview, of course. Do you have any other specific policies on this front that you’d like to sort of bring up? Or just say, you’ll be there for them. You have their back.
You know, I think we work with, I don’t know, just about a dozen unions in the city. I’ve been really active working directly with our HR director and department of making sure that we are going above and beyond to add the extra holiday. I keep talking about, you know, who can we offer 40 hour work weeks to. We have a lot that we can do to support our workers, not just within city staff, but in the city of Portland, to show them that we’re on the same team, right? And maybe this is just, you know, being someone who’s always been around like really pro-labor folks, but I think, you know, workers built our city, workers run our city.
I don’t think it’s too crazy to say that we need to do everything we can to make sure that they know we support them. And sometimes we might disagree on some nuanced policies, but at the end of the day, I wanna be proud to say that the city of Portland is 100%. there for our unions. And there’s more that we can do for sure. But I think for the most part, we’ve, we’re we are walking that walk. And at least in my experience, I’ve always whenever we’re asked to give guidance, when it comes to negotiating with a certain union, I’ve always been I’ve always erred on the side of “Just give them what they’re asking for.” Like they’re they’re doing really hard work. And, and you know, for me, it’s the least we can do.
All right. Well, that’s about all I have.
Yeah. I mean, are there any is there anything that I didn’t ask you about that you you’re just chomping at the bit to bring up?
Oh, my goodness.
I’ll consider it a personal failing if there’s anything I missed.
Ashley, you got it all. Right, I broke a sweat. I finished a whole glass of water. I – This was great. I appreciate you. I’m not at all shocked that you were this thorough. This is exactly what I expected.
Of course, it’s been a group effort in coming up with all these questions. So I’m really glad that we got through all this. Is there anything else that you’d like to say to people about your campaign, or your last 30 second elevator pitch for why they should put Andrew Zarro first choice for mayor?
That’s a good one. Thank you for any of you who are listening. still at this point after two hours. Thank you for listening to my vision for Portland. I care deeply about the city and I feel like I say it a lot but my goal is to leave the city better than I found it. My campaign is a campaign for the people of Portland. I’m here with concrete solutions to try to do better. And I can’t do that alone. I need you to do that with me. Whether you agree with me, disagree with me, this is your city too. And I hope that you reach out to me if you have any questions. And I would absolutely be honored to have your support to make me the next mayor of the city of Portland. We have a lot of work to do. And if there’s one thing I hope I’ve proven to you, it’s that I’m in it to do the work. I’m not in it for anything other than rolling up my sleeves and fixing the big problems we have and making the space a little bit better. Thank you, and I’ll see you around Portland.