UPDATE (7:33 a.m. PT, Wednesday, Feb. 26) — Several months ago, a coalition of nonprofits set out to put a price on what it would cost to effectively end chronic homelessness in the Portland region – or at least make a significant dent in it.
Based on regional analysis and the most recent annual count of the area’s homeless population, they came back with a figure: $250 million.
On Tuesday, Metro, the regional government for Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties, unanimously voted to refer a measure to the May ballot that, if passed by voters, would raise that amount for homeless services annually through two taxes.
The money would be earmarked for supportive services, an umbrella term that encompasses programs targeted to ensure those at risk of homelessness are able to stay in their homes. These include services such as case management, rent assistance, addiction and recovery services, mental health care, and employment support.
The measure was first brought to the council last month by HereTogether Oregon, a coalition of advocates, elected officials, business leaders and service providers who asked the council to raise $250 million to respond to the homeless crisis at scale. That set off a sprint to get the measure ready to refer to the May 19 ballot; what the taxing mechanism would be, and therefore how much it would generate, remained in flux until just last Friday.
Before casting her vote in favor – “so much yes” – Metro Council President Lynn Peterson noted that some Metro staff went an entire month without a weekend off to ensure this measure got on the ballot.
“Failure on this is not an option,” she said. “We’ve waited too long, and it is now time to pay for the services that have proven to be effective in addressing the cause of chronic homelessness.”
Tuesday’s meeting also presented councilors a chance to review the finer details of the proposed taxes, which had generated some confusion just last week. Metro staff initially told the council the measure they were then considering would generate $175 million. The actual number was $135 million.
Since then, the council has decided it will ask voters to approve two new taxes.
The first would be a 1% marginal income tax for the wealthiest residents — individuals earning more than $125,000 annually or couples making more than $200,000. That tax would generate $169 million a year, according to Andy Shaw, director of government affairs for Metro.
“We have that in writing,” Shaw joked, a nod to last week’s confusion. “So we’re comfortable with that estimate.”
The second tax would be a 1% business tax on the profits of mid and large-sized businesses, those with gross receipts of more than $5 million dollars.
Shaw said they’re estimating that will raise about $79 million each year.
If the measure passes, that’s roughly $248 million generated annually to help those at risk of chronic homelessness. According to Paul Slyman, Peterson’s chief of staff, the money would be distributed based on the population of each county: about 45% would go Multnomah County, 33% for Washington County, and 21% to Clackamas County. Five percent will be left over for “Metro oversight and administration.”
Debbie Thiele, the managing director of the Corporation for Supportive Housing’s Western Region, worked on some of the initial modeling that let HereTogether get a sense of how much it would cost to make a significant dent in the region’s homeless crisis. She said she was not involved in the ballot measure, which she said was “groundbreaking on the West Coast.”
“One of the things that I’ve observed in communities up and down the West coast is that they’re often hesitant to kind of go all the way with their resources. And so you get a lot of piecemeal resources that lead to piecemeal work,” Theile said. “Over the course of my career, that is how homelessness has been addressed: You get one funder or one initiative that says, ‘Let’s try to get 10 million here or 3 million there,’ and you do what you can with that. But it doesn’t really address the full problem.”
This measure, she believed, is a new approach.
“That’s where I think that the Portland metro area is being really bold about saying, ‘No, we are getting real about problems,’” she said. “It’s rare that a community will take this on a scale.”
The measure enjoys a swath of support from elected officials, many of whom came out Tuesday to voice their support. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said it was an obvious next step to the recent housing bonds passed both by Portland and Metro. Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury called the vote a “major milestone” as the county never before has had the money nor the regional coordination to respond appropriately. The other two county chairs – Washington County’s Kathryn Harrington and Clackamas County’s Jim Bernard – had testified at a meeting last week.
As local stakeholders piled on support, the Portland Business Alliance, the region’s largest chamber of commerce, had been one notable holdout. Last week, PBA leaders sounded alarm bells about the initial plan to tax high earners and accused Metro of rushing a vote.
But, by Tuesday afternoon, the alliance was on board.
“We all recognize the need to provide wraparound services to stabilize our fellow residents in need,” said Andrew Hoan, the business group’s president. “You have our full support.”
Hoan added that he did have concerns that, under the current rules, a person could be double-taxed under the ballot measure, with their income recognized as both a business income and a personal income. Peterson said she recognized the issue and Metro plans to address it.
If passed in May, there will be annual performance and finance audits related to the new funding stream. Voters will have an option to renew the taxes after 10 years.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that the measure would impose a 1% tax on couples earning more than $200,000 annually.