A measure to ease the conversion of hotels and motels into emergency shelters and long-term affordable housing for people who lost their homes in the wildfires or who are otherwise unhoused sailed through the Senate on Monday.

Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, urged his colleagues to vote for the bill, pointing out that Oregon continues to have one of the highest rates of unhoused people in the nation.

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“We might or might not agree that we share a humanitarian and moral obligation to do everything we possibly can to reduce this crisis ... but I do think every one of us is aware that this crisis will be a continuing hemorrhage on our state budget,” Golden said on the floor.

The bill would pave the way for converting motels or hotels into emergency shelters or long-term affordable housing even if current zoning laws would prohibit doing so. The building must, however, be within the city’s urban growth boundary.

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State Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Medford, listens to arguments on the floor of the Oregon Senate on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

State Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Medford, urged his colleagues to vote for the housing bill. Here he listens to arguments on the floor of the Oregon Senate in January 2019.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

The vote in the Senate was 19 in favor, 8 opposed. The bill has already passed the House and now heads to Gov. Kate Brown’s desk.

Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, said she was worried about the lack of flexibility in the bill and whether it’s “in concert with local governments” or rather “highly prescriptive” where local governments are now required to convert hotels and motels.

Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, echoed those concerns, saying making the projects mandatory is not what lawmakers initially agreed was the best course of action.

He pointed out a family with small children could end up on a busy commercial street, which is not ideal for long-term affordable housing.

There are other similar housing efforts underway in the state, including what has been dubbed Project Turnkey, where the state carved out $65 million to buy and convert motels into temporary shelters. House Speaker Tina Kotek also has a bill, House Bill 2006, that would allow local governments to waive design, planning and zoning regulations to approve the siting of emergency shelters.

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Portland considers zoning change to allow for cheaper housing options, more shelter beds

The proposal, called the Shelter to Housing Continuum project, would provide more options for people at risk of houselessness or already living on the street. The project has been in the city pipeline since February 2019 when the council voted to extend the city’s State of Housing Emergency, a declaration that eased zoning code restrictions for shelter providers.