Oregon House lawmakers approved legislation on Wednesday that will shift the state’s focus to building more affordable housing, carve out money to support kids who are houseless and help people on the verge of becoming unsheltered. The bills are widely expected to pass the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Rep. Emerson Levy, a Democrat who represents Central Oregon, supported the plan by telling colleagues about a former Bend city official who died earlier this year.
“When I read recently that our former Mayor Craig Coyner … former mayor of Bend had recently died homeless, his feet frozen, my heart broke at the reminder that we are all human subject to the difficulties that may find us,” Levy said. “We are at a crisis point and must move quickly to address our housing needs.”
The package, made up of House Bills 2001 and 5019, would dedicate about $200 million to build more affordable housing in the state, rehouse about 1,200 people currently without homes, prevent homelessness for more than 8,000 and expand shelter capacity by 600 beds within one year.
The measures would also force Oregonians to rethink a generation-old approach to the way they build housing. For the first time, cities with a population greater than 10,000 would be required to set building targets for specific income levels and then build the actual number of affordable housing units they deem necessary. The legislation also aims to streamline the often-litigious and lengthy process of bringing more land inside urban growth boundaries, making it easier to build faster.
The passage of major housing policy so early in the 2023 legislative session, which began in January and will stretch through June, is a win for Gov. Tina Kotek, who campaigned last year on moving swiftly to address the state’s housing crisis.
Although some Republicans voiced concerns the measures took away local control and questioned accountability tied to the money, many said they supported the effort.
“There are some things in the bill that I’m not crazy about,” said Rep. Kevin Mannix, R-Salem. “But there are many good things, and this is our opportunity to move forward. But we need to understand that there is much more that we need to do in the state of Oregon through additional legislation … Sometimes it takes a few bites at the sandwich to finish the sandwich.”
The legislation requires agencies or groups that receive the state money to give legislators quarterly updates on how many people are finding new housing or staying in their current home thanks to the dollars being spent.
The legislative package devotes $25 million to address youth homelessness, $20 million to help build more modular housing, $3 million to help developers trying to build affordable homes, $5 million toward helping farmers improve living conditions for their employees and $27 million for rural counties to help them address homelessness.
Rep. Annessa Hartman, D-Gladstone, is a first-time representative who said her life was turned upside down when she lost her job during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Too many of our families struggle to afford the cost of living,” she said. “Too many families are just one paycheck away from being evicted and too many of our unhoused neighbors and youth are struggling to find a way out … This is just the first step of many.”
Lawmakers’ paramount task this session is passing a new two-year budget. State lawmakers are expected to release their budget proposal in the coming weeks, which will include additional funding for housing and homelessness.