Image for Pessimism Lingers on Future of Downtown
Downtown Portland's woes have attracted a lot of attention by a gubernatorial task force, critics of Measure 110 and The New York Times. Fixing those woes has proven complicated, contentious and according to residents overdue.

Lawmakers Look at Measure 110 Changes While Workers Seek Perks to Return

The plight of downtown Portland has received  a lot of attention from a gubernatorial task force, Measure 110 critics and The New York Times. The attention may lead to changes in Oregon’s pioneering drug decriminalization law, which may or may not be enough to reassure Portland voters or downtown workers.

Poll results released last week showed lingering pessimism about downtown homelessness, crime and safety. A separate survey of Portland area business leaders indicates the new normal for employees is hybrid work. The survey said the best way to lure employees back to the office is by offering perks such as free meals, paid parking and daycare reimbursement.

The Times has provided a running commentary on Portland’s downtown woes. Recriminalizing drug possession – a proposed cure for downtown woes – prompted another piece in The Times, an op-ed citing data the author says undermines the reasons given to repeal or substantially change Measure 110.

The Poll
Portland-based DHM Research surveyed 500 voters in the Portland metropolitan area in December. Similar surveys have been conducted for 12 years in partnership with the Portland Metro Chamber.

This year’s findings varied sharply from findings as recently as 2019 when 76 percent of respondents voiced positive views of Portland’s economic future. The findings from the 2023 survey revealed 47 percent of respondents hold negative views of Portland going forward, with only 42 percent expressing a positive view. A whopping 78 percent believe Portland’s quality of life is getting worse and 51 percent say the region is on the “wrong track”.

Open-ended questions revealed the top concern (40 percent) is homelessness in Portland, followed by drug use and addiction, safety and crime and affordable housing.

Negative perceptions of Portland come despite falling inflation, the absence of a recession, robust consumer spending and low unemployment. Despite that, Portland Metro Chamber Vice President Jon Isaacs said, “We have to respect the perspective that residents of the region have and understand that we are in for a long haul until people who live here – voters, taxpayers – start to feel that difference. We’re not there yet.”

The Business Survey
Referred to as “The Great Return to Work”, a survey was sent to Portland-area business leaders with companies of all sizes. Its primary finding was that “fully remote is becoming a rarity as hybrid work seems to be here to stay because it offers employees flexibility and financial benefits.”

“Free parking, free food and upgraded office space should be the first steps a company takes to motivate their employees to return to the office,” according to survey results.

Survey data indicates 73 percent of Portland-area workers have hybrid work schedules, with only 17 percent full-time in the office and just 8 percent fully remote. Survey analytics show 37 percent of business survey respondents are small businesses with 20 or fewer employees.

The most effective return-to-the-office incentives, based on survey results, are free meals (18%), free parking (18%), upgraded office space (14%) and fuel reimbursement (12%). Allowing pets at work and daycare reimbursement each scored 9%.

The Times Op-Ed
Written by Maia Szalavitz, a writer who covers addiction and public policy, the op-ed said, “Researchers studying Measure 110’s effects recently presented compelling evidence that the current law is extremely unlikely to have done the harm for which it is being blamed. But rampant misinformation – often being spread for political gain – means the legislature is likely to return to its old-school drug war approach.”

The Oregon legislature held a hearing last week on three measures that would impose misdemeanor charges for small amounts of drug possession with avenues for offenders to pursue addiction treatment.

Szalavitz called Measure 110 the linchpin of a national effort to view drug addiction as a public health issue rather than a criminal matter. Scaling back or repealing Measure, she argued, could set back the effort.

“If we really want to end the overdose and homelessness crises – in Oregon and around the country – we have to understand and follow the evidence, not the fearmongering, Szalavitz wrote. She cited a survey of 500 Oregonians who use drugs that showed only 7 percent were aware that Measure 110’s decriminalization was in effect and only 1.5 percent started using drugs after the measure went into effect.

The author of several books on addiction treatment, Szalavitz traced increasing overdoses to the spread of illicitly manufactured and illegally distributed fentanyl dating back to 2013. “As recently as 2018, nearly 90 percent of all overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids occurred in the 28 states east of the Mississippi,” she said. “The drug and its analogues didn’t overrun Western state markets until 2019. Data from Oregon follows the same trends as other states where fentanyl began to spread during a similar period.” Szalavitz noted fentanyl deaths rose after Washington’s decriminalization measure was overturned in court.

Szalavitz’ 2017 book Unbroken Brain argues that addiction to drugs, gambling or pornography is neither a crime nor a brain disease, but more akin to learning disorders that require treatment strategies to overcome addictive behavior. Her writing is in formed by her own cocaine and heroin addiction as a teen and young adult.

“We can’t arrest our way out of this.”

She concluded her op-ed by quoting Portland Police Officer David Baer, who is on bike patrol in neighborhoods hardest hit by drug use and a participant in a pilot program teaming him with outreach workers trained to deal with addicts.

“These folks are experts in this. They have experience. They’re so compassionate. And so through that program, we’re able to get people into treatment,” Baer told Szalavitz. “We can’t arrest our way out of this.”