Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek’s office said this week that the state has exceeded its goals for the 2023 homelessness state of emergency. Over the last year since the emergency was declared, more than 1,000 new low-barrier shelter beds were added, nearly 2,000 people were housed, and almost 9,000 households were given aid to prevent them from becoming homeless. Andrea Bell is the executive director of Oregon Housing and Community Services. She joins us to share more about these goals, the state’s progress on increasing housing production and a recent audit of the agency’s emergency rental assistance program.
The following transcription was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Over the last few years, the Oregon agency that oversees housing has seen its budget nearly triple. It’s not exactly a surprise. Oregon Housing and Community Services has been at the center of some of the most vexing problems the state is facing: responding to homelessness, preventing it in the first place with rental assistance, and working to increase housing production and affordability. The agency has gotten a mix of news in the last month. They have exceeded their goals for new shelter beds and rehousing homeless people. At the same time, a new state audit found serious issues about the way they dispersed pandemic-era relief. Andrea Bell is the executive director of Oregon Housing and Community Services. She joins us now. Welcome back to the show.
Andrea Bell: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Miller: The latest data, which is current through last month, shows that in terms of new shelter beds, rehousing homeless people, and keeping people in their homes, you have exceeded all of your stated targets, sometimes significantly. Rehousing was 41% higher than the goal. Shelter bed creation was 52% higher. I am not used to asking public officials about successes like this. What went right?
Bell: That’s a really good question. Well, Governor Kotek’s executive order on homelessness was really burst out of an acknowledgment, and a stark understanding that the experience of homelessness has increased in so many communities across the state. If you can think about the last year, it was for us, really creating a vehicle from the goals that are stated within that executive order to where we’re at today. And as you mentioned, all three of the goals that were cited within that executive order were certainly achieved and exceeded. But I think what we have in front of us is really a new chapter, not just for the state of Oregon as an entity, but the state of Oregon as a whole. I think there are so many people across the state that have so much care and concern about where we are going in terms of addressing the experience of homelessness [and] are we even making progress? And I think what we have in front of us is a way of being that has yielded progress, not just on an abstract level, but in the lives of people that we serve.
One of the things that went really right as we look back at this effort is really a demonstration of what is possible when state government [and] local partners really come together, really focused on regionalized strategy. This is about the state showing up in a way that is supporting local efforts that have been taking place for quite some time, but really with an enlightened goal, much more focused on outcomes.
Miller: Does this mean that the goals should have been higher to begin with? If you exceed them by 41% or 52%, were they just too low?
Bell: Well, I think what we’re holding is sort of two things. We’ve often said part of our job in this is “we’ve got to be able to chew bubblegum and walk at the same time.” Certainly, there is progress. When you think about the scale of rapid rehousing that was achieved with the executive order, that’s over 1,800 households that have been rapidly rehoused in an environment where we all know we don’t have enough affordable housing. And so I think to the question of “should the goals have been higher?” I think the overall goal, the overall intention is to continue to make progress on homelessness. And that is what our focus will be, both now in front of us, but then as we go forth, ahead.
I think part of the work in this is to figure out from each community what we need to embrace as part of going forward. What were the strategies that actually worked and we need to do more of? And what are the things that we maybe thought worked, and we need to re-look at that and revisit as we continue our way forward?
Miller: What are examples of those? What can you tell us does work and what do you think should be put aside?
Bell: One of the things that we talked a lot about really early on when we were thinking about, what is gonna be the vehicle that is going to get us to progress, what is gonna be the vehicle that we can look back and say that it is something that we not just created for the sake of creating, but we created it and it actually had a meaningful impact for the betterment of lives for the people that we serve? So in those conversations, if you can think about all of the local folks that are delivering services every day, folks from the state all coming together to really look at what these strategies look like. I think one of those strategies certainly was thinking about the importance of having a focus on street outreach. Think about the people that are entrusted with creating those relationships, understanding the needs of people, and really helping to meet people’s goals as they see them and as they define them.
And many of those strategies such as that were developed locally. Each of the communities submitted their plan, they submitted their own strategies. Part of our role at the state was to understand what the strategy was, understand how we’re gonna get to progress month-by-month, over time. But then also understand where we, as the state, also need to take a step back to be able to support the plans within that. And so over time, that is what we saw, some of those strategies come to bear. Then ultimately, [they] have yielded in really what is historic progress in this particular moment and on this particular issue.
Miller: So street outreach at the very personal level, that’s successful in general. What do you think is less successful?
Bell: I think in terms of what is less successful is less about one particular strategy, but the approach to it. So I’ll give you a good example of that. When we look at other states who have engaged in work similar to this, one of the things that we have seen that doesn’t typically work so well is when the state is mandating and describing and detailing how the work needs to happen. Not just what needs to happen, but how it needs to happen. The reason why we find that those strategies often are less effective over time is because, as the state, we have an important role, but we’re also not the end all be all. We’re not in each community to know intimately the experience of homelessness in each community. How that varies from Jackson County to Lane County to Washington County. It’s really people in those communities that know that best.
So as we think about the things that [have] worked, that is why we believe that having that local and state partnership, based in accountability, is the most effective way. And I think as we think about what is going to continue to yield progress, it is having regionalized strategy, and the state supporting those regionalized strategies with a focus on outcomes.
Miller: I want to turn to the recent audit by the Oregon secretary of state’s office that I mentioned briefly at the beginning. It found your agency was not really prepared to manage the immense increase in money that you are putting out, federal money, emergency rental assistance. Almost half a billion dollars during the COVID-19 pandemic. Have your accounting methods changed since then?
Bell: I think you named something that is important as we think about the pandemic, and particularly this program - $426 million to help keep over 67,000 households served. What an unusual time the pandemic was but I think there was a specific point of day in and day out stressor. If we can think about people that are struggling to get by, and what that looks like, what that stress is, day in and day out, one of the things that we really gleaned from operating that program, and what the audit really helped reaffirmed, is that balance between speed [and] flexibility, enough for folks to be able to engage and get access to the services they need. Because at the end of the day that’s what you want, your state government showing up and making things a little bit easier.
Certainly, it also [helped] us think about some of the things that don’t always feel like the most exciting topics, which is sort of how you operate a program, some of the checks and balances that you put in place, and ultimately how you track outcomes. For example, with the executive order work, we receive data weekly and monthly from each participating community. That process has allowed us to understand how many people are being engaged, what are the outcomes that we are seeing, and then over time, really understanding from a state perspective, how does that day to day work that’s happening in each community tell the picture of where the outcome is. So certainly, [an] unusual time the pandemic [was] but I think there were moments that things we have taken and adapted…to really learn, for some of the current work that’s ahead of us.
Miller: I want to make sure I understand what you’re saying here. For example, the auditors wrote, and this was about the pandemic-era money, “the number of total applications paid has been reported as about 56,000, or about 65,000, or over 67,000.” We started by talking about the recent numbers that your office has put out, showing that you well exceeded goals. I’m wondering basically how much trust we can put in those numbers, given that just a couple of years ago there was a lot of discrepancy about numbers?
Bell: Certainly, one of the things I think about is the relationship between trust, particularly public trust as a government agency, and then outcomes. And so one of the things, for example with the emergency rental assistance program, that program for anything that the agency has administered, even to date, there’s really not anything quite compared to that, given the scale of the resources, the scale of the program, and then all of the inflow of information that is coming into that.
So when we think about public trust for just the outcomes with the executive order, for example, we have been able to set up a data infrastructure where we get real time data, that data is validated, we spend time doing that, which is why really early on with the executive order we set up a public facing dashboard where people could look at that data over time. And even while we said that last month that the data that we provided was preliminary data. So it’s about taking the time to really validate that data, not only from a local perspective, but from a state perspective.
And I think that larger part of what you mentioned around public trust is being able to really describe the outcomes and describe how we got there. That’s something that I think that we’ll continue to focus on specifically when we talk about the building of affordable housing. But then outcomes related to homelessness is really making sure that there’s a clear and transparent way of describing how we get to understanding the outcomes that people want to see and the outcomes that are in front of us.
Miller: Let’s turn to the production of housing. You are a member of the governor’s Housing Production Advisory Council. It’s a group she put together to develop a plan or plans to increase housing production immensely - 80% over recent levels - meaning an additional 363,000 homes over the next 10 years. One year in, has there been any meaningful increase in production?
Bell: The Housing Production Advisory Council, we have never had something such as that in the state. And what I mean by that is oftentimes, if people hear committees or councils, are sort of curious about what they’re up to and what it all means in terms of actual progress. I don’t think it’s any surprise, we don’t have enough affordable housing here in Oregon. We need housing in all of its shapes and sizes. Even though we are building almost triple the amount of affordable housing than we have even prior to 2019 for example, in all corners of the state and all types of housing models, it isn’t enough. Even though we have built more housing, it simply isn’t enough.
So the intention of the Housing Production Advisory Council is it brings together folks from all across the state that touch all points of building affordable housing. So not just on the financing side, but you think about land use, you think about permitting, all of the components that get us to a place where you see dirt on the ground, to an affordable housing development. The intention of that group was really to say, if we’re going to build more affordable housing, let’s kick the tires, let’s look under the hood, and lay out some very clear things without being shy about it. What are some things that we need to tackle and what are some of the things that we need to do differently in order to build more affordable housing? We haven’t had that before. So I think part of what we now have in front of us is 50-plus very clear strategies for folks across the state that will go to the governor to consider not only in terms of financing, but the way that we build, and how do we do that in a way that is efficient, how do we do that in a way that is quicker, and a way that is going to give us more outcomes?
Miller: The issue that got the most attention from the recommendations from the advisory council is a proposed set of huge tax increases that collectively would bring in $3 billion in new revenue. They include increases in personal income tax, property tax, payroll tax, fuel tax, and would create a sales tax. All of that basically is a political nonstarter this year, the governor’s office has made that very clear. I don’t want to talk about the politics of that, but the policy: why did the council suggest the need for more money?
Bell: Well, the question that was in front of the council is “what are the things that we should or could explore to build more affordable housing?” So when you ask a question so broad, all of us are gonna put together anything that we can reasonably consider that is strategically gonna move things forward. I think the key point of this is all of them, in totality at this point, are all recommendations. So what will end up going forward, what won’t end up giving forward, I think that has yet to be fully determined and realized.
But I think what we know for sure is that there is too much at stake. There is not a day goes by that I don’t get a letter from somebody, that I don’t get a letter from a teacher, I don’t get a letter from a neighbor that is concerned about the cost of affordable housing, the fact that it is out of reach for too many people. And part of what our role and responsibility is to tackle the big question and not only just point to the problem, but we gotta get to a point of where we have some real credible solutions in front of us. And some of those recommendations will aid in what the forward way is gonna be like as we continue to build more affordable housing, and do it in a way that’s a little bit more efficient, a little bit more streamlined, and get to a place where people have more options.
Miller: Andrea Bell, thanks for your time. I appreciate it.
Bell: Thanks, Dave.
Miller: Andrea Bell is the executive director of the state agency, Oregon Housing and Community Services.
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