Oregon News

Homeless and housing money goes to legislative votes

By PETER WONG
Oregon Capital Bureau

Both houses of the Oregon Legislature will get their chance to decide on the $200 million that Gov. Tina Kotek seeks to help unhoused people and avert further homelessness.

The Legislature’s joint budget committee voted Friday to clear both bills, which will come up first in the House and then in the Senate in the coming week. The package represents the first test for Kotek, who took office just two months ago. Their total cost is about $220 million, $30 million of which comes from the current budget cycle ending June 30, and the rest from the next two-year cycle.

In addition to Kotek’s original request for $130 million – plus $27 million more that legislators tacked on for aid to rural counties – the two-bill package also provides seed money for programs that Kotek and lawmakers want to increase housing. A related policy bill (House Bill 2001) would enable the state to prod cities and Metro to plan for more housing production, provide more help for homeless youths, and extend notice for evictions based on nonpayment.

Some minority Republicans dissented on the bills, but the others joined all Democrats on the committee to approve them.

“This package includes short- and long-term solutions that will address homelessness, prevent evictions and make building affordable housing our No. 1 priority as a state,” said House Majority Whip Andrea Valderrama, a Democrat from East Portland and a committee member. “We know that this package is just a start and is laying the foundation for what is to come this session.”

Dissenting views

Sen. Fred Girod of Lyons was one of the dissenters. He likened the package to the Legislature’s attempt last year to resolve a shortage of lawyers required to represent indigent criminal defendants in court.

“We threw extra money at it and we got zero public defenders out of it,” Girod said.

The package does fund an effort by the state land use planning agency to help cities greater than 10,000 – plus Metro, the Portland regional government – plan for housing production goals. Kotek has set a housing production target of 36,000 annually, 80% higher than the annual average of 20,000 during the past five years. But Kotek, who announced that target in her inaugural remarks Jan. 9, conceded that is unlikely to happen immediately.

“There is an attempt to get rid of some of the red tape around building, which I think will help in the long run,” Girod said. “But that’s going to take a long time to get through,” noting that cities also must have adequate water and sewer capacity for development.

“I feel strongly that this is a good first attempt, but we need to sit down and have a long-term strategy.”

But when Girod sought to pin blame for the rise in homelessness on a 2020 ballot initiative (Measure 110) that removed criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of some drugs and redistributed proceeds from state cannabis sales taxes, Rep. Tawna Sanchez, D-Portland, said he sought to oversimplify the causes.

Sanchez, the House co-chair of the joint budget panel, said that a housing shortage was confirmed by the housing needs analysis that the Legislature commissioned in 2019 at the behest of Kotek, then the House speaker.

“We have been in a housing emergency for some time, previous to Measure 110 and any kind of resource distribution by that measure when it took effect,” Sanchez said. “It really is up to us now how we make that decision and move forward.”

Sen. Lynn Findley of Vale also opposed both bills. He said they lacked measurements for their effectiveness in reducing homelessness.

“I question whether we’re going to see anything,” he said.

What the package does

Though the bills themselves do not contain the measurements, the accompanying budget reports list them for both Kotek’s original budget request – which cover only the 10 counties with the greatest number of unhoused people, according to the 2022 point-in-time counts she conceded are “incomplete”— plus the add-on by legislators for Oregon’s 26 other counties.

The Portland area and Central Oregon, each with three counties, are separate regions.

Together with $155 million, they call for rapid re-housing of 1,650 households experiencing homelessness, expanded shelter capacity by 700 beds, and prevention of homelessness for 8,750 households through rental assistance and other services. The Oregon Department of Housing and Community Services will funnel aid directly to multiagency coordination groups in five regions designated in Kotek’s Jan. 10 executive order, plus rural counties.

They also provide for emergency response by the housing agency and the Department of Emergency Management.

“This is not a local problem,” said Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, who said state agencies should direct the money to cooperative efforts by regions.

Of the rest of the money, $25 million will go to aid for homeless youths, $20 million for production of modular homes that can reduce cost and construction time, $5 million for Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes, $5 million for improvements in onsite housing for farmworkers – overseen by the Department of Agriculture – and $3 million for a revolving loan fund to help communities and developers jump-start construction for worker housing with advance payments for permit fees and systems development charges.

One other provision extends the required notice for evictions based on nonpayment from 72 hours (3 days) to 10 days, allowing more time for tenants to obtain help. This does not extend notice of evictions based on other reasons.

In addition to Girod and Findley, both bills were opposed by Republican Reps. Jami Cate of Lebanon and E. Werner Reschke of Klamath Falls. Rep. Rick Lewis, R-Silverton, voted for the policy bill but against the budget bill. The Legislature’s Republican leaders, Sen. Tim Knopp of Bend and Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson of Prineville, voted for both bills.

Republican Rep. Greg Smith of Heppner is the longest-serving member of the current House in his 23rd year.

“The question I have to ask is: How was this unforeseen?” Smith said of Kotek’s executive orders, which declared a state of emergency on homelessness on her first full day in office.

“I feel as if I dropped the ball. I hope all the rest of us look in the mirror and say: Now we have an emergency. How did we drop the ball? Tomorrow is going to be here soon. I hope we don’t take our eyes off this need.”

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