Flush with cash and facing increased pressure to help, Oregon Democrats want to spend $400 million on housing and homelessness.

Democrats at the Capitol in Salem control both legislative chambers and say they hope the proposed $400 million investment will make a big dent in the statewide housing crisis.

Democrats at the Capitol in Salem control both legislative chambers and say they hope the proposed $400 million investment will make a big dent in the statewide housing crisis.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

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The proposal, rolled out Thursday with less than two weeks until the end of the legislative session, includes $165 million for homeless services, $215 million to build and maintain affordable housing and $20 million to improve access to homeownership.

Democrats control both legislative chambers and say they hope the proposed $400 million investment will make a big dent in the statewide housing crisis. Funding is available for the plan thanks to the massive amount of tax revenue Oregon continues to rake in despite a general sense, as seen in several recent voter polls, that most Oregonians are still struggling from the pandemic.

Lawmakers recently learned the state has more than $2.5 billion to spend as income and business taxes far exceed expectations, around $800 million more than expected when they received an update on the state’s financial picture in the fall.

Prior to this legislative session, Gov. Kate Brown said the state’s comparatively healthy financial situation provided an opportunity for significant investment in helping the poorest Oregonians.

The plan lawmakers announced Thursday aims to address the immediate needs of cities, counties and Oregon tribal communities in their responses to homelessness. It includes money to increase shelter capacity and hygiene resources, support rapid rehousing efforts, provide resources for caseworker referrals and to bolster outreach.

House Majority Leader Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, said the plan puts limits on how the state money should be spent but also gives cities, counties and tribes flexibility.

“We knew heading into the session that we were wanting to make a significant investment in addressing homelessness in the state. The conversations (that led to this proposal) were about how,” Fahey said. “We want to prioritize people first, doing it with compassion and in a way that invests in solutions that are actually effective.”

Fahey said the $165 million for homeless services cannot be used for sweeps or dislocating people who have nowhere else to go.

The Democratic plan also provides an additional $50 million for Project Turnkey, a statewide program administered by the Oregon Community Foundation and local community action agencies to turn defunct motels into emergency shelters.

Investments in affordable housing aim at keeping low-income families from being displaced by rising rent costs throughout the state. Building new affordable units for families to rent and buy is also a high priority.

The state will use the money to help developers struggling with market and supply chain disruptions and acquire land to improve its stock of affordable units.

Money designated for removing barriers to homeownership for low-income families will increase support for organizations that help people find homes, such as Hacienda Community Development Corporation, a Portland-based group that helps Latino Oregonians become homeowners.

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Sen. Deb Patterson, D-Salem, said she views this plan as a turning point for lawmakers who often have differing opinions on the approach to addressing homelessness.

“This package signals we’re on the same page here in Salem,” she said.

The spending plan will be approved by lawmakers as part of the session’s budget process. The Legislature passes a budget every other year but uses the short session to make adjustments based on quarterly forecasts and emergencies facing the state.

The Democrats’ proposal follows urging by local leaders from across Oregon, including Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, for state lawmakers to pay for emergency homeless shelters. It also follows a Jan. 31 memo in which Wheeler aide and former Portland mayor Sam Adams proposed building high-capacity shelters, ending unsanctioned camping and a renewed effort to clear trash tied to homeless camps.

That idea was heavily criticized by advocates for people experiencing homelessness, who accused the Wheeler administration of pursuing a potentially inhumane solution that amounted to rounding up local homeless people and putting them into camps.

Despite not receiving a direct allocation from lawmakers’ proposal, Portland will receive money allocated by the plan funneled through Multnomah County.

Wheeler’s office responded Thursday saying the city applauds the Legislature’s effort to provide dollars tackling this humanitarian crisis.

“The cost of these services is staggering and we need strong state partnerships and resources to build on the work we are all doing,” Wheeler’s office said in an email. “we look forward to continued partnership with the state to develop a comprehensive community and statewide approach to address houselessness.”

In Eugene, Mayor Lucy Vinis said that these dollars will help the city’s management of “safe sleep sites, rest stops and micro sites” which have led to the addition of more than 350 shelter beds since April 2020.

“These critical state resources allow us to press forward, now, to build and expand our work,” Vinis said. “It builds on the momentum of our collaboration between local, state and federal government throughout the pandemic.

Along with the $400 million spending plan, Democrats are also pursuing a bipartisan bill — co-sponsored by six Republicans — led by Rep. Jason Kropf of Bend creating eight pilot programs establishing a coordinated homeless response system within the state. It would provide money for counties to establish centralized offices to oversee help for people living on the streets.

The program would be paid for by state grants and requires the eight counties involved — Hood River, Wasco, Sherman, Lincoln, Benton, Deschutes, Polk and Umatilla — to make annual reports to Oregon Housing and Community Services and the state’s housing stability council.

Each of the eight counties would receive $1 million to start under the bill.

“I think the pilot communities have signaled a collective commitment to tackling this issue in their community,” Kropf said. “All the cities in Deschutes County have signed up, as well as our nonprofit and faith groups.”

Kropf said the pilot programs will provide short-term solutions for immediate needs and also help lawmakers figure out a long-range plan to help both people at risk of losing their homes and those living in temporary shelters.

Lawmakers have until March 7 to pass both the budget containing homeless and housing investment and the bill establishing the pilot programs.

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