Governor Presses Legislature to OK $155 Million for Homelessness

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By Julia Shumway

Gov. Tina Kotek on Tuesday repeated calls for the Oregon Legislature to quickly approve $155 million for homelessness, calling Oregon’s housing crisis “one of the most daunting emergencies we have ever faced.”

“Business as usual is simply not enough,” Kotek told the House Committee on Housing and Homelessness. “We must work together across all levels of government and across party lines to make the immediate and long-term changes that this humanitarian crisis requires.”

Kotek and a bipartisan group of Oregon legislators have described the housing crisis as their top priority this session. At least 18,000 Oregonians are homeless, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and many more are at risk of losing their homes because of high rents or mortgage payments.

A coalition in Umatilla County is addressing homelessness by funding a transitional housing shelter called Project PATH. The Hermiston City Council received an update on the effort on Monday.

On her first day in office, Kotek declared a homelessness state of emergency in the state’s urban areas and called for the Legislature to quickly spend $130 million to address homelessness. She’s since revised that figure up to about $155 million, adding $27.4 million for homelessness in rural counties. About 4,000 of the 18,000 total homeless Oregonians live in the 26 rural counties.

Oregon legislators plan to pair the $155 million for homelessness in House Bill 5019 with other policy changes and about $50 million in additional funding for youth homelessness and housing construction in House Bill 2001. Kotek told reporters later on Tuesday that she’s reserving judgment on the other components of the housing package, waiting to see what the final bill looks like.

“I am 100% focused on my budget that is in House Bill 5019,” Kotek said. “I know there’s some other things going on. I have to stay focused on making sure we have those resources for helping our unsheltered neighbors. I haven’t even had a chance to figure out what else is getting added in there.”

After hearing from Kotek, the House committee voted to advance House Bill 2001, an omnibus housing package that would make major changes in the way the state approaches planning for building homes, give more time for renters to make up lost rent before facing eviction and earmark $25 million for youth homelessness and $20 million to build modular homes.

Four Democrats and two Republicans on the committee voted for the measure, with two Republicans opposed. Both House bills are likely to pass through the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee by the end of next week and then be ready for a vote by the whole House the week of March 13. House Speaker Dan Rayfield said lawmakers are trying to hasten that process.

One section of HB 2001, which would give the state more authority to require cities to plan for and build enough homes to meet demand, still has skeptics in cities. The committee heard requests from the mayors of Eugene and Bend to refine that portion on Tuesday.

Eugene Mayor Lucy Vinis said cities were told earlier this year that they’d have time to methodically work through that portion of the bill but that it was rushed into the early housing package.

“Our staff are beyond capacity and have been for quite some time,” Vinis said. “Each year the Legislature or governor are adding more onto our plate, many times without adequate resources to support these new mandates.”

Bend Mayor Melanie Kebler said she’d like to see incentives for cities like Bend that meet their goals. With just over 100,000 residents, the central Oregon city has less than 3% of Oregon’s population, and it’s constructing 1,500 homes per year – more than 4% of the ambitious 36,000 homes per year goal Kotek set for the state. Bend could build more if the state helped pay for the roads, sewer and water lines and other infrastructure needed to build houses, she said.

“​​We really believe that if this framework is going to work, the agency is going to need to give cities not just a penalty or a reprimand but also a chance to succeed and in very many cases, some assistance,” Kebler said.

Big land use bills – or “BLUBs,” a term committee chair Maxine Dexter, D-Portland, borrowed from the president of the Oregon Property Owners Association – never feel like they’re ready to pass, Dexter told reporters. There are always a lot of technical issues and strong feelings involved, and lawmakers could have continued debating the bill for a long time.

“That bill would have continued to take the oxygen out of the room until we moved it,” she said.

This story was first published in the Oregon Capital Chronicle.