Not long after the housing crash, Oregon’s then-Gov. John Kitzhaber gave employees at the state’s housing agency a directive: Justify your existence.
Oregon Housing and Community Services was ineffective, costly and overly bureaucratic. The agency had lost its mission, there was “no North Star” to what they were doing, the director said at the time. It was 2013 and the role the state should play in addressing a growing housing crisis was unclear.
Fast forward to 2019: The agency, which is charged with overseeing affordable housing, saw a $160 million budget boost in the previous two budget cycles and a staff increase of 53 positions. At the same time, its charge expanded as Oregon started passing ambitious policies to address a relentless housing crisis.
Last year, lawmakers passed a first-in-the-nation cap on rents and ended single-family zoning. And the state isn’t stopping.
This legislative session, which kicks off this week, House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, has another first-of-its-kind proposal: She wants a statewide emergency declaration that would allow cities around the state to more easily site homeless shelters. The idea comes with a hefty price tag for a 35-day legislative session: $120 million for creating shelters and providing affordable housing.
“Most housing and homeless discussions have been local (historically),” Kotek said on Monday. “Local governments have been in charge … Some have done really well and some have struggled. The state cannot sit back any longer and not do something about this.”
As the state delves deeper into an issue that was once considered the realm of local jurisdictions, at least one veteran lawmaker has issued a warning.
Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose and co-chair of the powerful budget committee, recently noted, on her podcast, the state is now investing in housing with “a capital H.”
The state is good at responding to the “crisis du jour,” Johnson said.
“But we are uniquely bad at checking to see: Are the services being delivered appropriately for the maximum bang for the buck for the taxpayers? And over the passage of time, are we making a difference in whatever the articulated problem was? When do we go back and take a look and say, ‘Did the trend line go down?’” Johnson asked.
A Statewide Problem
Claire Hall, a longtime Lincoln County Commissioner, remembers being appointed to a statewide task force to address homeless issues.
“It was the later part of the [Gov. Ted] Kulongoski administration that we came up with a statewide homeless plan. I was optimistic. We delivered the report with much fanfare and then I asked a couple of years ago what happened to our plan,” she said.
As far as she knows, it sat on a shelf.
“I really think decades of neglect are coming home to roost all around the state, but the one bright spot I see is there is a realization that it’s happening and there is a commitment to deal with it,” said Hall, who now sits on the statewide housing council.
It wasn’t until 2015 that the state Legislature created its first committee with the word ‘housing.’
Rep. Alissa Keny Guyer, D-Portland, chaired the Human Services and Housing Committee. She said as soon as lawmakers started working on a committee with the word ‘housing’ in it, people became more engaged. They went to conferences to learn about it and ultimately, she said, there was a crescendo of legislation building to the 2019 session.
In 2016, for example, the state passed a tenant protection bill requiring landlords give 60 days notice before evicting and 90-day notice for a rent increase. In 2017, they passed legislation requiring certain sized cities to allow accessory dwelling units and streamlined the permitting for affordable housing. In 2018, they boosted the document recording fee from $20 to $60 dollars, which created $30 million a year to go toward increasing affordable housing stock.
And after Sen. Shemia Fagan, D-Portland, ousted Rod Monroe primarily on housing issues, the Oregon state Senate created its own housing committee in 2019.
Kotek revealed more details about her state of emergency declaration on Monday.
She wants to see $40 million go toward the creation of ‘navigation centers’ in both Eugene and Salem. She wants the state to help local jurisdictions waive land-use laws so they could expedite the siting of low-barrier shelters. And she wants to designate money to help people transition from shelters into housing at a faster rate.
The goal, she said, is to have more communities with emergency shelters running by this fall.
She is also pushing to use $50 million of general obligations bonds to build new affordable housing and another $20 million of lottery bonds to preserve existing housing.
Kotek is also hoping to study what creating a state voucher system to help poorer people pay for housing would look like.
A report from the state’s Department of Housing and Community Services issued in August said the state of homelessness in the state, especially for those living without shelter, is of “catastrophic proportions.”
The report estimated the state needs to add at least another 5,800 shelter beds.
Oregon has also been one of the fastest growing states in the nation, with much of that growth coming from people moving into the state. At the same time, housing production decreased during the recession leading to low housing inventory, according to information from the housing agency.
As the state’s role in housing evolves, Kotek said she is hoping to see continued funding for analysis and data collection.
“As we invest, I’ve always been really clear there has to be accountability and outcomes with housing,” Kotek said.
Kotek’s bill is scheduled for a hearing on Wednesday.