Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek is declaring a housing state of emergency as one of her first acts in office, fulfilling a promise she made during the 2022 campaign and kickstarting what she says will be a more aggressive approach to rising homelessness.
Kotek was sworn in as Oregon’s 39th governor Monday afternoon. In her inaugural address, she said that on her first full day in office Tuesday, she’ll declare the state of emergency and sign an executive order calling on state government to help create 36,000 new homes a year — an 80% increase over current production.
State demographers and economists have estimated Oregon needs to build more than 550,000 new housing units over the next 20 years. The state is short more than 110,000 homes to meet current demand, and most of those units need to be aimed at poorer Oregonians — a population private-sector builders usually say they need public help to serve.
It’s not clear yet how Kotek hopes to help local governments and private businesses meet her new housing goal, though declaring a state of emergency does give state government greater flexibility over how taxpayer money is spent and how state land-use rules are executed.
The new governor is also proposing a $130 million investment to help people currently at risk of losing their homes. State legislators, who were also sworn in Monday and begin their 2023 work in earnest next week, would need to approve that emergency spending.
“I have heard from people loud and clear,” Kotek told the crowd of state leaders who crowded the Oregon House chamber Monday. “The status quo is not working. And for many Oregonians, it never worked.”
Kotek, a Democrat, was elected in November to replace now former-Gov. Kate Brown, who was barred by term limits from seeking another term. Brown took office in 2015 and governed during a series of seemingly nonstop crises for Oregon and the country, including wildfires, COVID-19, the 2020 racial justice reckoning and ensuing months of protests and a spike in both housing costs and homelessness.
Brown accomplished many of the biggest items on the Democratic agenda, including mandating paid sick leave, creating a new business tax for education and remaking the state’s criminal justice system through judicial appointments and the use of commutations.
Still, the outgoing governor faced significant criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike about some of her decisions and her response to the rise in homelessness, among other big challenges facing the state.
Kotek, just the third female governor in Oregon history and, along with new Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey, the first lesbian ever elected to a governorship in the United States, is a self-declared progressive. She won the 2022 campaign largely because of her strength in urban areas and gained a reputation in the Legislature, where she was Oregon’s longest-serving House speaker before resigning to run for governor, of being especially adept at using the power of that post to keep her fellow Democrats in line.
But in her inaugural speech, she said her priority is strengthening connections between Oregonians across the state. She cited former Republican Gov. Vic Atiyeh as inspiration.
“He too was a former legislator with deep knowledge of our state budget,” she said. “… I will endeavor to listen and lead with the same authenticity, compassion and skill that Governor Atiyeh brought to the job.”
Oregon House representatives — wearing yellow roses tucked in their coat pockets — filled the chamber Monday for a ceremony heavy on pomp. Kotek’s relatives sat tightly packed on the sidelines, while members of the media overlooked the ceremony from the chamber balconies. Construction noises occasionally peppered the ceremony speeches, since the Capitol is currently undergoing renovations.
During her inaugural speech, Kotek said she would bring a new degree of accountability to state agencies by calling on leaders to prioritize customer service.
“That means being more efficient, more effective and creating systems that will empower the state’s 42,000 public servants to deliver for Oregonians,” she said. “So many state employees are working incredibly hard to do their jobs, but struggle because of unnecessary bureaucratic barriers or outdated systems that do not meet the challenge of the day.”
Building some semblance of bipartisan consensus will be key for the new administration: Although Democrats managed to avoid the “red wave” some political scientists had predicted last fall, they lost their supermajorities in the state House and Senate. That means any legislation to raise revenue through taxes this session will require some GOP support.
And new housing will cost big money at a time when state economists warn Oregon could be headed toward an economic dip after a surprisingly fast recovery from COVID-19 job losses. The biggest agenda item for Kotek and legislators during this legislative session, which must end by late June, is coming up with a budget for the next two years.
In addition to Kotek’s inauguration Monday, the Oregon House reelected Speaker Dan Rayfield, a Corvallis Democrat. During his speech, Rayfield said he wants lawmakers to come together in what’s become a highly polarized political environment to address some key livability issues in Oregon, including homeless, gun violence, and access to medical and mental support.
“We alone can’t fix the polarization and trust issues in our country,” Rayfield said. “But we can accept responsibility for our actions within these walls and make Oregon an example of how things can be done.”
State Senators also selected a new president: Rob Wagner, a Democrat from Lake Oswego. He replaces now-retired Sen. Peter Courtney, who left office in 2022 after 38 years, making him the longest-serving legislator in Oregon history.