Editor’s Note: OPB is reaching out to the three leading candidates to become Oregon’s next governor to see where they fall on the issues. Here are Democrat Tina Kotek’s responses to our written questions about how to address the state’s homelessness crisis:
What do you believe are the specific causes of Oregon’s homelessness crisis?
Oregon’s housing and homelessness crisis is complex and didn’t happen overnight. There are three main reasons for what we’re seeing today:
● Oregon has a housing supply and housing affordability problem. These things go hand in hand. The simple truth is there is not enough housing available to meet the needs of our communities, and there isn’t enough housing a lot of people can afford. Oregon currently has a shortage of at least 111,000 homes and we need to build 36,200 new homes every year for the next 10 years to close the gap.
● Oregon’s homelessness services system is too fragmented and existing resources must be better coordinated at the local level. Three years ago, a study said Oregon was one of only four states where more than half of all people experiencing homelessness were living outside. The state agency in charge did not have an action plan to coordinate a statewide response and then the pandemic started.
● Oregon is just now recovering from chronic underfunding of critical assistance to vulnerable Oregonians who simply cannot work and afford housing due to a serious mental illness, addiction, or disability.
There are solutions to these challenges. As Governor, I will issue an executive order on Day One that will get everyone focused on building enough homes in urban, suburban, and rural communities to meet our goals. I am going to make sure the Oregon Health Authority does a better job of utilizing the $500 million they have to expand access to mental health care and strengthen capacity in Oregon’s behavioral health system statewide. I will advocate for more resources to train and support street outreach teams to help people get into shelters and on a path to permanent housing. And I will not allow any more excuses of why local providers and governments can’t work better together.
What is a metric you will use to gauge your administration’s success on homelessness? What is a reasonable timetable for meeting that metric?
We will need both output and outcome metrics that are transparent and accountable. For example, an output would be “how often does someone living on the streets have consistent and reliable contact with a street outreach team?” Measuring success would be based on how many Oregonians experiencing homelessness have moved into permanent housing and how many households at risk of homelessness have not lost their housing. One of my specific goals is to end unsheltered homelessness for veterans, families with children, unaccompanied young adults, and people 65 years and older by 2025. Within the first 30 days of entering office, I will form a special emergency management team to work directly with local governments and community leaders to address the urgent needs of veterans, families with children, unaccompanied young adults, and people 65 years and older who are living outside. Finally, this is a humanitarian crisis that also impacts local businesses, families, and neighborhood livability. I will immediately start cleaning up the trash in our streets by partnering with local governments and expanding easy-entry jobs programs to employ people to do clean up.
What type of homeless shelters are the most effective? Low barrier? Or those that require something from residents? Where should they be located?
The severity of the crisis requires as many shelter options in as many locations as possible. Shelters should be part of a comprehensive crisis response system that includes direct street outreach and strong collaboration across local service providers to make sure we’re connecting people with the services, funds, and assistance to help them move off the streets. Simultaneously, we need to focus on building more housing of all kinds, but especially permanent supportive housing, which is a best practice to help people who have been chronically homeless. That’s the only way to meet our growing population needs and reduce the need for emergency shelter. That’s why I spent my last five years as Speaker sounding the alarm and securing more than $1.5 billion in targeted investments to increase housing access, shelter capacity, rent assistance, and other housing needs, including:
● $765 million in investments for affordable housing and permanent supportive housing, down payment assistance, homeless services, tenant support, and more (2021 session).
● Leading the Emergency Board to invest more than $500 million in rental assistance and other housing supports in 2020, including $75 million for Project Turnkey, a program that converts hotels and motels into shelter space. In under seven months, we were able to expand the state’s shelter capacity by 20%. (Johnson and Drazan criticized the program and even voted against it at critical points during its development and expansion.)
● New protections for renters, including:
● Protection from no cause evictions and extreme rent increases (SB 608, 2019; Drazan and Johnson voted no)
● Protections for Oregonians who couldn’t pay rent due to impacts from the pandemic and $150 million to help small landlords cover overdue rent payments. (HB 4401, Third Special Session of 2020; Drazan voted no and Johnson failed to vote.) When it comes to our housing and homelessness crisis, my philosophy is that we must get to “yes” – we have to do the hard work to have bold, urgent solutions and follow through to ensure that they are being executed as promised and accountable for delivering real results.
Was Project Turnkey a good idea? Should it be expanded?
Yes and yes. The innovative idea of converting existing motels and hotels into transitional shelters should be expanded wherever possible. As House Speaker, I championed and secured the initial $75 million investment in Project Turnkey, which successfully expanded the state’s shelter capacity by 20% in less than seven months. I have visited Project Turnkey sites around the state and heard directly from Oregonians who made their way into stable housing because of Project Turnkey. It works, and I applaud the local leaders who stepped up to make things happen in their communities. Voters should know that former Senator Betsy Johnson tried to block this innovative housing solution when it came before the legislature’s Emergency Board in the first six months of the pandemic, and former Representative Christine Drazan voted against a bill to expand the program after it had proven successful. That’s not leadership on solving our homelessness crisis.
How would you suggest helping people move beyond homeless shelters and into more permanent housing?
A key strategy is to provide more affordable housing, and especially permanent supportive housing. As House Speaker, I led the effort to invest in affordable housing, including permanent supportive housing, which specifically helps people who have experienced chronic homelessness. As Governor, I will partner with the private sector to make sure we are investing in the right mix of affordable housing, based on the data that tells us what Oregonians actually need. For people who have experienced chronic homelessness, we will need options that are affordable to people with very low incomes and provide wrap-around services. Other households experiencing homelessness don’t need services – they just need an affordable place to live. For these families, we need to build more housing that is more affordable. We have the data we need to take targeted action, and as Governor I will work every day to end our homelessness crisis. We also need to do everything we can to help people avoid becoming homeless in the first place. As Governor, I will bring our federal partners to the table. We need to make the federal housing choice voucher program available to everyone who is eligible. Currently, due to federal underinvestment, only one in four households who are eligible for a voucher receive one. I also support creating a statewide, long-term rent assistance program to help very low-income Oregonians stay housed. We also need more emergency rent assistance for families who could otherwise afford their rent but have a short-term emergency that puts them at risk of homelessness. Like food, housing is a basic human need. Every family who needs food assistance can sign up to get it, and families should be able to do the same thing to keep a roof over their heads.
Should people camping illegally face citations or criminal charges?
I believe it’s appropriate and necessary for local governments to be able to restrict camping in specific public places for health and safety reasons and for supporting managed shelter areas. As for the determination of what is “illegal,” the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Martin v. Boise ruled it was unconstitutional for local governments to criminalize homelessness in the absence of adequate alternatives, thereby prohibiting cities from criminalizing the status of homelessness itself by punishing individuals for sleeping outside when they have nowhere else to go. But we can’t stand still because of that ruling. It is the duty of state and local governments to develop adequate transitional shelter, increase the supply of affordable housing, prevent evictions and foreclosures, and do the direct outreach needed to help people connect with services and move off the streets.
How would you address homelessness that is affecting areas outside of the Portland metro region?
Our housing challenges affect all parts of the state. I would listen to local leaders and community members around the state about what they need to address the housing crisis in their community. In addition to the solutions outlined above, rural communities will likely need additional resources to implement solutions. Therefore, as Governor, I would direct the state’s housing agency to help by providing targeted assistance to support the siting, operations, and staffing of new shelters in smaller or rural communities. Helping people experiencing homelessness stay in their communities (instead of moving to more urban areas) helps them maintain their social networks of support and can aid in a faster return to stability. Additionally, it will be critical to partner with the state’s largest employers to create a housing and transportation employment plan which will be especially impactful outside the Portland-metro area. I will bring urgency to this issue and work with everyone to get this done. I am the only candidate in this race with the vision, values, and proven track record of fighting to end Oregon’s homelessness crisis.