The creation of more permanent supportive housing is one solution to homelessness that’s been gaining support in Oregon for a while. This method looks to house the most vulnerable: people suffering from long-term homelessness who also struggle with debilitating health issues, such as physical or mental and behavioral conditions or addiction.
The state’s leading housing agency, Oregon Housing and Community Services (OHCS), made permanent supportive housing a key part of its Statewide Housing Plan in 2019. Its goal then was to create 1,000 of this type of affordable housing by 2023. The agency surpassed that goal by more than 200 units earlier this month.
OPB’s All Things Considered host Tiffany Camhi spoke with executive director of OHCS Andrea Bell about this milestone and what to expect from her agency next.
Tiffany Camhi: Let’s start with defining what permanent supportive housing is.
Andrea Bell: First of all, Oregon does not have enough affordable housing. Over the last couple of years, it’s been reaffirmed that housing is a critical determinant of health. Permanent supportive housing is a particular evidence-based housing model that brings together the two disciplines of affordable housing and behavioral health services. We know that housing and services are both needed. So when we talk about “housing as health,” this model really embodies that.
Camhi: Since 2019, OHCS has committed to funding more than 1,200 permanent supportive housing units across the state. How many of these are actually online now and where are they in the state?
Bell: So a few years ago, when our agency embarked on our Statewide Housing Plan, which really serves as our five-year strategic plan, we set out some audacious, achievable and aggressive goals around housing. Within that plan, there is a commitment to increase the pipeline of permanent supportive homes by 1,000. Now, we’re about four years into that plan and we have more than 1,200 units that we are investing in. We estimate that Oregon has somewhere between 1,500 to 2,000 permanent supportive housing units on the ground or in development. And when we look statewide, about 60 percent of those are being scaled up in the Portland metro region.
Camhi: There are quite a few in development right now, are there any permanent supportive housing units that are online and actually housing people right now?
Bell: We do have some of our permanent supportive homes up and running. Malheur County opened up its first affordable housing [in Ontario.] About six of those units were dedicated to permanent supportive housing. In total, this project was about 56 units. And when you think about the scale of permanent supportive housing and affordable housing taking place across the state, 56 units doesn’t sound like a lot. But when you think about the context and the demographics in Malheur County, that is huge. These are individuals and families that are going to be able to have opportunities and have accessibility to affordable housing. This is about stabilizing communities and that is really the impetus of permanent supportive housing.
Camhi: According to data from the Corporation for Supportive Housing, a nationwide homeless services nonprofit that OHCS works closely with, Oregon needs more than 14,000 supportive housing units. How does your agency plan to meet this demand and is it even feasible?
Bell: Absolutely. It is feasible. Our responsibility as the state’s housing finance agency [is] to remain hopeful, both around the progress that we have made so far and the monumental task that we continue to have in front of us. We still have a year left in our statewide housing plan and we still have goals that we have to continue to pursue. As we think about the next couple of years, we’re heading into a budget cycle where we are asking for $800 million dollars in housing investments; 60% of it is housing-supply focused.
So while we do not directly develop, our responsibility in this is to use both state and federal resources to facilitate all of the solutions that we’re working towards for housing with our development partners, homeless services partners, community-based organizations and others across the state.
Camhi: What kind of support would you like to see on the local, state and federal levels regarding permanent supportive housing?
Bell: We are seeing sweat equity, the labor of love, from all of our partners to pursue housing solutions that are based in dignity, that are based in evidence-based solutions and that are both systemic and sustainable.
What’s incumbent upon us next, collectively, exists in a few ways: we have to continue to work to invest in affordable housing solutions and preserve affordable housing, we must continue to engage with the community to make sure that the housing we’re building is accessible, we are working to make sure we have the right wraparound services to support people in the long run and then we’re continuing our work on the federal level on advocacy.