Before the COVID-19 pandemic upended our lives and before the wildfires devastated our state, Oregon was already in the midst of a housing crisis. Now, it’s worse.
For years, housing issues in the state legislature were considered more of an afterthought; issues to be tackled primarily at the local level. But in more recent history, the topic has taken center stage inside the state Capitol. In 2019, lawmakers passed ambitious proposals, such as a first-in-the-nation cap on rents and a move to end single-family zoning. But never before has the crisis in the state been so profound, making it one of the most pressing and urgent issues lawmakers will face this legislative session.
The 2020 wildfire season wiped out entire communities, destroying as many as 4,000 homes, many of them considered to be affordable housing. With the economic uncertainty and job losses spurred by the pandemic, lawmakers are also trying desperately to avoid an eviction cliff and ensure many more people don’t lose their homes in foreclosures.
Even before the pandemic and wildfires, Oregon’s rate of homeless was one of the highest in the United States. In 2019, an Urban Institute report found Oregon had rates of unsheltered homelessness of more than 3.5 times the national average. For years, there has been a chronic underproduction of housing. The Oregon Housing and Community Services agency estimated the state needs to see double the production of housing in order to meet the current demands and triple the current production of subsidized affordable housing units.
“For me, I think about it as, ‘What do we need to do specifically related to the pandemic and what do we need to do related to the pre-existing crises,” said Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, who oversees the Oregon House Committee on Housing.
This legislative session, lawmakers are considering bills to extend the moratorium on foreclosures, give renters more time to pay down their debt and expedite the process to create emergency housing shelters. Democrats have proposed increasing a tax credit for those who develop or rehabilitate housing for agricultural workers. They hope to help kids aging out of foster care with rental assistance. And they want to see the homeless crisis addressed through a racial-equity lens.
“This is the most unequal recession we have ever faced,” Sen. Kayse Jama, the chair of the Senate Committee on Housing and Development, said in a statement. “We must stay focused on helping tenants who have lost their income through no fault of their own and help keep people housed.”
Democratic lawmakers have proposed spending $535 million to go toward the housing crisis this session. About $230 million would be carved out for affordable rental housing construction and another $30 million would help qualifying individuals put a down payment on home purchases. Some of that money, nearly $50 million, would go toward creating more navigation centers statewide, which are low-barrier emergency shelters open seven days a week and aim to connect those living without shelter to services that could help them. Lawmakers are also expecting more assistance from the federal government, which could be put toward offering renters more relief.
On Monday, Democrats — who hold the majority in both chambers of the Oregon Legislature — unveiled some of the policy proposals they consider to be priorities during the 2021 legislative session. Here is a quick look at some of those bills:
Emergency Shelter Expedited Siting, House Bill 2006: The lack of an adequate number of shelter beds has plagued the state for several years. This bill aims to help local governments cut through some of the red tape to quickly create an emergency shelter. The bill would allow local governments to waive design, planning and zoning regulations to approve the siting of emergency shelters. Shelters would still need to comply with certain building codes and meet certain public health and safety requirements. The emergency siting authority would expire July 1, 2022, although shelters could remain open after that date.
Shelter Support and Navigation Centers, House Bill 2004: This is a companion bill to go with House Bill 2006. It would carve out $45 million to help build shelter capacity statewide and create navigation centers in Bend, Eugene, McMinnville, Medford and Salem. The bulk of the money, $26.5 million, would go toward grants to help increase low-barrier shelter capacity, to put toward creating necessary elements of a facility such as bathrooms. Some of the money, about $2 million, would go to Oregon Housing and Community Services so they can offer technical assistance.
Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams, House Bill 2417: More than three decades ago, the city of Eugene created a public safety program where mental health professionals - instead of police officers - responded to some public safety crises that involved homelessness, addiction or mental illnesses. A crisis worker who has training in the mental health field arrives with either a nurse, paramedic or EMT. This bill has been dubbed the “CAHOOTS” (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) bill, named after the program in Lane County. The bill would put the Department of Human Services (DHS) in charge of providing 50% matching grants to cities or counties to create and run their own mobile crisis intervention programs. It carves out $10 million from the general fund.
Protecting Survival Activities in Public Space, House Bill 3115: This bill would prevent cities and counties from enacting sweeping laws prohibiting homeless people from camping on public land. The goal of this bill, House Speaker Tina Kotek said, is to ensure there are “objectively reasonable” policies in place when it comes to determining where and how people can live outdoors. If a city or local government were to enact a more restrictive measure, this could allow homeless people to sue in order to stop them.
COVID Recovery Protection, Senate Bill 282: The current eviction moratorium expires on July 1. On that date, tenants will owe all of their back rent, along with the current month’s rent. This bill would extend the grace period by which tenants must pay back their rent until February 2022. Proponents have made the case that millions of dollars in federal assistance will still be coming into the state, but not yet distributed during this time period. So, extending the grace period could mean landlords are still compensated financially while giving tenants more time to pay their debt.
Individual Assessments in Rent Applications, Senate Bill 291: This bill aims to make it more difficult to screen out tenants due to an applicant’s arrest and conviction history, with the larger goal of trying to reduce existing racial disparities in Oregon housing. The bill would prohibit landlords from considering arrests that don’t end in a conviction, or that result in a diversion. A tenant could not be rejected if they had been convicted for something that is no longer a crime in Oregon. The bill would also require a landlord to consider the severity of the incident, how much time has elapsed and the age of the applicant at the time of the incident. If the landlord denies the application, they must provide a written statement saying why within 14 days.
Foreclosure Moratorium Extension, House Bill 2009: This bill would extend the moratorium on foreclosures until Sept. 1. The bill would be retroactive back to Dec. 31 and would only apply to residential property owners.
Manufactured Home Park Tenants’ Opportunity to Purchase, House Bill 2364: This bill would require owners of a residential facility who is considering selling their property to give tenants 20 days to form a tenant committee and give them the right of first refusal to purchase the property. If the owner receives notice within the correct time frame that the tenant committee wants to purchase the facility, the owner may not make or accept a purchase officer for the facility. The owner must first make an offer in writing to sell the facility to the tenants committee at an equal or lower price and on similar terms.
Racial Disparities in Home Ownership, Senate Bill 79: This measure carves out money to help offer grants and loans for down payment assistance. The goal is to help increase homeownership access to low-income individuals and to begin to address racial disparities in home ownership. The bill allows Oregon’s nine federally-recognized tribes to use the homeownership assistance program in their communities. It would also allow for culturally specific counseling, financial literacy classes and work to ensure language barriers are less of a barrier when it comes to buying a home.
Healthy Homes Program, House Bill 2842: This measure would create a “healthy homes” program within the state’s health authority. The program’s goal would be to provide grants for low-income households and landlords to repair and rehabilitate residential dwelling units that could be considered health hazards.