Politics

Portland State expert says Gov. Tina Kotek’s housing plan is a good first step, but she’ll need help

By Dave Miller (OPB)
Jan. 15, 2023 1 p.m.

Marisa Zapata says people need to be more creative in how they conceive publicly supported housing.

New Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek wasted little time in calling attention to the state’s housing and homelessness crises.

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On her first full day in office this week, she signed three executive orders aimed at ramping up the production of new housing in Oregon and creating new policies to get people off the streets.

“Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller sat down with Marisa Zapata, director of the Portland State University Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative, to get her take on the governor’s plan. She applauded Kotek’s three executive orders but warns that it will take a lot of money, a fundamental shift in how the public sector approaches housing and the cooperation from local governments to fully succeed.

Here are the highlights of that conversation:

Dave Miller: I just want to start with the big picture because you’ve been on the show many times over the years, and you’ve often said that homelessness is a question of a lack of housing, a lack of affordable housing in particular. Are these executive orders from the governor a sign that the state’s chief executive agrees?

Marisa Zapata: Yes, absolutely. The first order of course is related to the production and supply of housing, and so that’s front and center and the acknowledgment that we need more affordable housing if we’re going to actually prevent and resolve homelessness.

Miller: When the governor made these announcements, what was the first thing that went through your mind?

Zapata: I was excited to see the series of them. I think it shows that she’s thinking about things holistically … She is centering the production of housing. She is also thinking about prevention, resolution and then also shelter.

The shelter part is always the one that gives me the most pause because of course, we know in the Tri-County area in Portland, the push has been to, what we would consider inhumane or ineffective approaches to shelter? And we know that there’s also this kind of stuck loop around shelter versus housing. She’s at least given herself the flexibility to say that in some places we do need more shelter, communities need some amount of shelter, but we also need to make sure we are pushing towards the prevention of homelessness and the resolution of it through affordable housing.

In a photo from last October, Rena, a person experiencing homelessness in Bend, sits in front of her tent with her dog, Scooby.

In a photo from last October, Rena, a person experiencing homelessness in Bend, sits in front of her tent with her dog, Scooby.

Joni Land / OPB

Miller: Let’s then dig deeper into the housing piece because that really is where the governor led. Her goal is to get to the people in the state, building 36,000 new units a year, which is about 14,000 more than the current number. What difference does setting a statewide housing production goal make?

Zapata: It’s about trying to say, ‘We are going to make the funding available,’ and that’s where it will come to: You can set the goal, but if the Legislature doesn’t want to honor a budget that would actually help reach that goal, then it becomes moot. But I think it’s saying, ‘These are the numbers that we want to be able to see come in. How do we make the money work in order to actually meet those goals?’

Miller: How do we? Really what this gets to is what do you think the proper role of the public sector, of taxpayer money, is to create more housing units? What is the best use of public money to address a lack of housing?

Zapata: So I think you’re thinking about it twofold: The private market will never produce housing for people of the lowest incomes and in some places, even for people who are on the lower end of moderate income. So the question then becomes, ‘What are we willing to do as taxpayers to remedy the market failure?’ Are we just going to wholesale be building our own public housing that is managed by government, community land trusts, tenant organizations, or nonprofit organizations? Are we going to try to make market incentives work?

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I think we see the limitation of market incentives, particularly, again for people with the lowest income. I think that we’re going to be really having to think hard about just whole-scale investment and development of housing at taxpayer support, and I use (the phrase) taxpayer support instead of expense, because we also know that some of our biggest housing subsidies are actually to homeowners through the mortgage interest tax deduction. So they’re already receiving a subsidy. We’d like to just see a more equal playing field in terms of who else is receiving significant housing subsidies.

Miller: What would massive public housing look like right now? And I guess when I say massive, I guess, I think the era of 20-story New York City-style public housing is probably not going to happen in Portland anytime soon or in other parts of Oregon. So what’s the model you think might work?

Zapata: We want to be thinking about, you know, housing that would be publicly accessible along with market-rate housing — that can happen in a single building, that can happen through single-family homes, that can happen through duplexes.

One of the things about House Bill 2001, which basically eliminated the right to exclusive single-family home zoning districts, is it means that we can have a range of housing types.

I actually would really love to see us get away from the assumption that affordable or public housing needs to be apartments and tiny units. It reflects one of the limitations of our thinking, which is spending the least amount of money on the fewest number of people. Whereas if we’re really thinking and particularly get into homelessness, thinking about ‘How do we support people living their best lives?’ it could be that a row house or a duplex becomes one of the better choices or even a single-family home. And then you were just developing housing that anyone could live in. You don’t have to think about it as ‘the person who is homeless will go into X unit.’ That would be game-changing. And it would also reduce or eliminate the stigma that often surrounds the terror of hearing ‘public housing’ that comes to mind with the 20 stories and concrete and so forth.

Miller: You noted earlier that you see failures with the market incentives model, but that is the model that came to my mind when I read the second of the governor’s executive orders. She said that she wants to create a housing production advisory council to develop a budget and recommend specific policies that would basically help the private sector work with local and state government agencies to meet that goal. What’s your skepticism about market incentives?

Zapata: It’s just when we’re thinking about homelessness, we see the majority of people experiencing homelessness into the 0 to 30% median household income range. There aren’t going to be market incentives that will get us to that. When I use the extreme of someone who, say, is on disability, we’re never going to have an incentive that makes a developer want to build housing at that income level. Because why would they? They’re going to be losing money.

That is where you could be thinking about matching low-income housing tax credits with private market or at-rate rental units, and then thinking about maybe some of the units are fully publicly subsidized. That’s what I assume that the governor and our local implementers will be thinking about. It gets really complicated because everyone will say, ‘Oh, we’re going to put an affordable unit in here and an extremely low-income unit in here, and then also put in a market rate unit.’ It starts to sound very confusing when it’s really just saying that some of the units will be designated for certain uses. And then the complexity is putting all of the funding streams together to make that development actually happen.

Miller: I want to turn to the declaration of the state of emergency due to homelessness in the most populous parts of Oregon: Portland, Central Oregon, Salem, the Eugene area, Medford and Ashland. What does a state of emergency actually mean in practice?

Zapata: That’s still one of my questions and I’ll admit that this is a confusing area. Right? I can read the order: It’s saying and talking about expediting agency processes, so ideally allowing for procurement and budgetary decisions to be done faster. I think the power in it is actually assembling and saying the central part of the state agencies have to be coordinated in their work as well and that this is a priority because we do know that homelessness requires a multi-agency approach. I see that as particularly compelling.

Miller: In terms of budgeting, the governor is also asking lawmakers to put $130 million towards unsheltered homelessness. What would you want that money to be spent on?

Zapata: Emergency shelter where it’s truly needed. We can think of some place like Hood River, that is really struggling to meet their needs around homelessness and making sure that they have actual access to emergency shelter. The need for emergency shelter is not necessarily exemplified by how many tents you have outside. And so this is actually a very tough needle to thread at the state level.

… I would like that to be focused on where we can do property acquisition through motels. We know that motel models for emergency shelter are really proving successful in helping people move into permanent housing where that’s available, but where you’re purchasing the motels, you’re also creating a land banking opportunity.

Lastly, I’d love to see some focus on alternative shelter models. We know that villages can be helpful — those are the tiny pods, the little pods that people can live in. We know that those can be powerful models while people are waiting for housing.

Miller: What’s the time frame that you’re envisioning for the initiatives the governor announced to actually bear fruit?

Zapata: I think that depends on the legislature and the cooperation of the localities in trying to make this work. I like to live in my dream world that ‘someone’s got power so everything can happen tomorrow.’ I don’t know, I think it’s a great question.

… We do know that, say in the Portland Tri-County area, we have luxury apartment buildings that are for sale and empty. Those could be acquired tomorrow. We know that there are naturally occurring affordable housing developments that are also for sale that would serve as a great prevention strategy to keep people in housing and may also have open units.

I think maybe it’s more about, what are the innovative strategies people are looking at to actually get moving on?

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