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Oregon Legislature Supports $200M for Housing, Homelessness

The state has signaled its support for allocating an additional $70 million to Gov. Tina Kotek’s initial request of $130 million in emergency funds to help move residents off the streets and keep them housed.

(TNS) — In her first day in office, Gov. Tina Kotek declared a homelessness state of emergency and called for $130 million to quickly move Oregonians off the streets or keep them housed.

The Legislature signaled it wants to do that and more. Lawmakers have coalesced around a plan to add $70 million more to fill gaps the governor’s initial plan didn’t address, primarily in rural counties.

The $200 million in emergency outlay would be on top of any funding that makes its way into the general housing and homelessness budget for the coming two years. The money aims to bolster rent assistance, expand shelters, protect homeless youth and catalyze affordable housing development.

Service providers say they view it as a down payment that will quickly let them scale up their work while they wait on their typical state funding.

The $200 million would be divvied up as follows:

  • $55.4 million for landlord incentives and mass leasing programs
  • $33.6 million for rent assistance
  • $27 million for rural counties
  • $25 million for homeless youth
  • $23.8 million for shelter beds
  • $20 million to produce modular affordable housing
  • $5 million for tribes
  • $5 million for culturally responsive organizations
  • $5 million to house farmworkers
  • $3 million revolving loan fund
  • $2 million for trash pick up

The two bills that would make the package a reality, House Bill 2001 and House Bill 5019, are scheduled for a House vote Wednesday. The bipartisan package is expected to easily pass before heading to the Senate.

The bill calls for a significant amount of the money to be allocated soon after Kotek signs the bill, likely before the end of March, a notable acceleration from the traditional timing of waiting for a new fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Sybil Hebb, Oregon Law Center’s legislative and policy advocacy director, described the emergency funds as “unprecedented.”

“No one will say this is the solution to all the issues,” Hebb said. “We still have more work to do. But this is a critical initial investment, and it is fantastic to see it moving quickly so there can be an impact right away.”

While policy experts and social service providers praise Kotek for her quick action, some question if the funding will be able to reach those who need it most with the same speed. Nonprofits awarded additional funding need to hire staffers to carry out the work. Across the state, nonprofits are struggling to find and retain workers willing to do emotionally laborious work on slim salaries.

“We need to have the staffing to make sure these dollars can get distributed,” said Andy Miller, director of newly renamed Portland homelessness nonprofit Our Just Future. “Most nonprofits are seeing double digit vacancy levels. The compensation levels at nonprofits are too low for us to be able to hire and retain the workforce needed to do this work. One of our concerns is that this package does not address that.”

“Indeed, nonprofits have some of the lowest paid workforces and highest turnover,” said Rep. Maxine Dexter, D- Portland. Dexter said some of the funding comes with opportunities to expand staffing, though nonprofit leaders say it isn’t nearly enough.

Stop the Bleeding

The largest portion of the funding package is meant to keep people on the economic brink housed or secure apartments for unhoused people.

It would allocate $55 million for nonprofits and landlords to help 1,200 unsheltered people become housed, largely by paying the rent for them to live in privately owned apartments. Echoing a pilot program that Multnomah County launched in summer 2022, it would also provide landlords assurances such as landlord-tenant mediation and money to repair damages.

The money could be spent “master leasing” entire apartment complexes or large portions of them or to rent single apartment units scattered across cities.

Scattered housing is preferred, said Laura Golino de Lovato, director of Portland housing nonprofit Northwest Pilot Project, because it avoids concentrating formerly unhoused people in a single building or neighborhood. It also allows people to have a bit of a choice in where they live.

Master leasing, on the other hand, is efficient and allows people to be housed very quickly, since clients don’t have to trudge through an arduous apartment search involving many different private landlords.

“The $55 million is nice because it comes with prepaid rent and landlord guarantees,” Golino de Lovato said. “So maybe a landlord hasn’t rented to someone with subsidized housing before or worked with us before, the extra incentive might open the door for a new relationship. I think the ideal for this pot of money is to be able to both work with landlords and also do some master leasing so people can have options of what works best for what situation.”

Sen. Kayse Jama, D- Portland, said he is grateful that landlords came to the table to collaborate on solutions to the homelessness crisis. “And we know these solutions work because we consulted with experts who know more than we do.”

Golino de Lovato said while 1,200 people gaining housing might not seem like a lot compared to the more than 3,000 people currently unsheltered just in the Portland metro area, it could have a huge impact on rural areas that currently have no funding to rent private apartments for unsheltered individuals.

“This is going to make a huge difference for those 1,200 people who will be moved immediately off the streets into housing,” she said.

State officials project the additional pot of $34 million for rent assistance and eviction prevention would prevent 8,750 families and individuals who are currently housed from becoming homeless. That aid would equate to about $3,770 per household.

For households that get hit with an unexpected medical expense or vehicle repair, an outlay of that size could be enough to stop a domino effect of late rent payments that could force them onto the street, Golino de Lovato said.

Or if someone is living on Social Security or making minimum wage and their rent increases, the money might cover the difference for a few months while they search for a cheaper place.

However, in other situations that money might not be enough. Many social service providers regard short-term rent assistance as a support that typically lasts six to 24 months. That’s enough time to keep someone housed while caseworkers and the client work to address the barriers that caused their housing instability. That can have a long-lasting impact but ususally costs more than $3,700, Golino de Lovato noted.

Golino de Lovato said questions remain about how the funding will be delivered.

“We have advocated for a streamlined system,” Golino de Lovato said. “The rent assistance system during the pandemic was very complex and hard to use for both landlords and tenants. It was slow and confusing.”

She recommended the money flow from the state to counties or regional coordinating groups created by Kotek, then to the nonprofits which are the most skilled at making sure the funds get in the hands of the correct people, she said.

“We know organizations have been doing rent assistance for a long time and the smaller culturally specific organizations know their tenants, communities and landlords, so my hope is that the organizations can get the funding directly to landlords on behalf of their clients,” she said.

The $25 million earmarked for youth is intended to be used much in the same way: to immediately connect youth to housing, shelter, behavioral health care and other supportive services, said Rep. Lisa Reynolds, D- Beaverton.

“Once a youth becomes homeless, so many failures at the state and society level have already happened,” Reynolds told The Oregonian/OregonLive. “We know that a youth experiencing homeless for just a month or two increases the chance they become homeless as adults. This investment would pay itself back by interrupting that cycle.”

Most of the funding would expand the state’s host home programs that are like foster homes but are for older teens and grant them more independence. Some money would also be used to expand local youth housing and shelter programs and add emergency housing funds for families with school aged children.

For Reynolds, a pediatrician, the funding felt personal.

“It crushes my heart,” she said. “Youth who become homeless are at risk of becoming further assaulted and a have a higher chance of human trafficking.”

Golino de Lovato said youth homelessness has been climbing nearly as quickly as senior homelessness – and getting both of those populations immediately into housing provides them more safety than waiting in shelters or on the street.

For those not fortunate enough to make it immediately into housing, the proposal calls for $23.8 million to expand low-barrier shelters statewide. The funding would add 600 beds across a state that has an estimated 12,000 people experiencing unsheltered homelessness

In Multnomah County, where the crisis is centered, about 2,000 shelter beds are open year-round or all winter.

“The additional shelter beds could be really significant in some of the rural and smaller communities,” Golino de Lovato said.

While Multnomah County’s shelter beds are largely low-barrier, meaning people can stay there with pets, with a romantic partner or if they use drugs or alcohol off-site, some communities don’t have shelters that are similarly accommodating.

“The fact that the governor prioritizes that the beds be low barrier is significant,” Golina de Lovato said.

Rural Oregon

Kotek’s initial proposal left out a large geographic portion of the state, as it only applied to 10 of Oregon’s 36 counties: Multnomah, Washington, Clackamas, Polk, Marion, Jefferson, Cook, Lane, Deschutes and Jackson. She targeted them because their homeless counts, as measured by federally required point-in-time counts, increased by 50% or more between 2017 and 2022.

Lawmakers and experts from the remaining 26 counties pushed back, saying those federally mandated homeless counts represent an undercount, especially in rural areas where homelessness can be harder to see due to the physical landscape and because people without homes may be more likely to couch surf, which the federal counts don’t include as being homeless.

“When the area was excluded from the governor’s initial emergency order, that was a very painful moment for those counties,” said Jimmy Jones, Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action director. “Some of those aren’t even very small counties. Some were fairly substantial in size with a high homeless population.”

He said officials in the rural counties appreciate the planned $27 million outlay.

“Will it make a huge impact? Probably not given the vast size of the homeless population,” Jones said. “It will help stand up winter shelters and house a few more folks. But this is a generational problem.”

Jones also worries about how long it will take.

“This work is very difficult work to do,” he said “I would stress to the general public we need patience for the long-term.”

The $27 million is slated to create 100 new shelter beds and house 450 people. Jones estimated there are about 5,000 unsheltered people across the 26 rural counties.

The package also contains $20 million to produce affordable modular homes. The factory-built homes are intended to avoid the delays that typically come with building homes and apartments from scratch. Rep. Pam Marsh, D- Ashland, told The Oregonian/OregonLive that she believes the funding could be used encourage four to five entities to take part.

The homes could be tiny homes, backyard dwelling unit, duplexes or full apartment complexes. Marsh said two developers in Jackson County are using the method to develop large apartment complexes of 120 to 140 units, so she knows it can be done.

“From the state’s point of view, we haven’t invested in specific housing approaches like this before,” Marsh said. “We have just invested in the financing of affordable housing, but we haven’t seen a role in sparking the industry as a whole.”

While the funding is available to any region statewide, Marsh hopes that some of the homes can be installed to help house people in areas prone to wildfires. In her southern Oregon district, she saw what happened when 2,500 homes were destroyed in the 2020 Alameda fire.

“It took a long time to rehome people,” she said. “If we have a set of modulars ready, we could be much further ahead when disasters happen, so that is a priority. But I expect them to be used in a variety of ways.”

©2023 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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