Commissioner Nick Fish has knack for results-oriented compromise

by Dave Lister

After his March release of an audit showing flagrant discrimination against people of color in Portland’s housing market, city Commissioner Nick Fish was assailed with mean-spirited and undeserved criticism.

Rather than whine about it, he exhibited leadership and took action. He had his bureau issue letters to all the offending properties, made public the names and locations of the buildings in violation and handed over all the data to Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries for enforcement. He let it be known that housing discrimination would not be tolerated in Portland.

As housing commissioner, Fish has also been tasked with the responsibility of continuing Portland’s 25-year battle to end homelessness, first proposed by a pragmatic businessperson-turned-mayor named Bud Clark.

This battle has been fought on many fronts with some successes and some failures over the years, and realistically, there will never be a final end to homelessness. But the problem is particularly daunting now due to state and county mental health services that have deteriorated to the point of nonexistence. Our mentally ill are on the streets, many self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. High unemployment due to the current recession is also putting people on the streets and exacerbating the social ills of domestic violence and child abuse. There should be no argument that these people need a place to go.

Unlike his predecessor, who spent more time trying to sell off the Bull Run watershed and purchase the local electric utility, Fish rolled up his sleeves and went to work. Exhibiting the patience of Job, Fish formed an unlikely coalition of the Portland Business Association, homeless advocates and neighborhood leaders to forge another tool in the battle on homelessness.

Just last week Fish and the City Council cut the ribbon on the Bud Clark Commons, an outreach facility that will provide 90 overnight shelter beds and 130 permanent apartments for the medically challenged. The center will also provide showers, haircuts, laundry facilities and apartment and job referrals. Forging the coalition to make that happen was a plum accomplishment for Fish. And, just like his efforts on the housing discrimination issue, Fish was hit with harsh criticism. But this time the criticism came from an unlikely source.

In a May 30 opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, Ethan Epstein, a graduate of Reed College, Portland’s premier bastion of self-governing and sometimes lawless liberalism, took Fish’s approach to task by insisting that the new center will only attract more homeless to come to Portland. Fish disagrees.

“I doubt that during his time at Reed,” Fish said, “Epstein had much, if any, contact with homeless veterans, victims of domestic violence or people with mental illness. He’s free to ignore these problems. I’m not. I’m charged with being part of the solution. In his piece he cites no data or study and he puts no human face on the problem. He just wants us to relocate the problem and not address it.”

I asked Fish about bringing the parties together to make the Commons a reality.

“When I ran for office I said that I would work tirelessly to build coalitions to solve problems,” Fish said. “I never question why someone joins our team. Some are morally outraged over homelessness. Others just want the sidewalks clear in front of their businesses. Their motivation isn’t as important to me as their desire to solve the problem.”

In watching Fish in office I’ve come to a conclusion. Fish is an intelligent, reasoned leader with a knack for results-oriented compromise. I’ve also concluded that when Fish ran for City Council against Sam Adams in 2004, I backed the wrong horse.

Dave Lister is a small-business owner who served on Portland’s Small Business Advisory Council.