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With homeless bills headed to governor, Oregon Legislature shifts focus to housing

People set up a mini-homeless camp on the edge of Southeast 28th Street in Portland in September 2022.
Fred Joe
Oregon Capital Chronicle
People set up a mini-homeless camp on the edge of Southeast 28th Street in Portland in September 2022.

As a bipartisan $200 million package intended to help hundreds of homeless Oregonians find housing heads to Gov. Tina Kotek for her signature, state lawmakers say they’re shifting focus from triaging a homelessness emergency to building more homes.

The Senate passed House Bill 2001 and House Bill 5019 on Tuesday night, after the House approved them last week. Kotek is expected to sign both bills soon, providing more than $112 million to build 700 shelter beds across the state and help 1,650 homeless Oregonians move into permanent houses within the next year. The measure also includes $25 million for homeless youth and more than $33 million for rent assistance to help nearly 9,000 families stay in their homes.

It’s unusual for the Legislature to pass such major spending ahead of the state’s two-year budget, which will be negotiated later this spring and must pass before lawmakers end their session in late June. Rep. David Gomberg, an Otis Democrat and a vice chair of the budget-writing Joint Ways and Means Committee, said passing the bills now means the state and organizations that receive funding can start helping people within the next month.

“If we had waited and followed the normal process through the legislative session and signed this bill at the end of the session rather than relatively close to the beginning of session, it would not have taken effect until August,” he said. “Using the process that we have used this week, we are going to be able to start taking steps with these new resources in April, not in August. That’s significant.”

State agencies including Oregon Housing and Community Services would be required to report to the Legislature four times per year about the progress they’ve made, including how many shelter beds have been built, how many homeless people found housing and how many evictions have been prevented.

The measures also would make sweeping changes to the state’s land use system, creating the Oregon Housing Needs Analysis to authorize state agencies to set goals for how many homes each city must build. The state could hold cities that fail to meet those goals to account by clawing back state grants and other funds from cities that refuse to build.

Rep. Maxine Dexter, a Portland Democrat and the chair of the House Committee on Housing and homelessness, said the measures would make the state and local governments accountable to each other. The state would need to provide cities with the resources they need, such as help with planning or money for infrastructure improvements, to build more homes, and cities would have to make sure they’re built.

“We’ve got to start building houses now,” Dexter said.

For decades, Oregon has built fewer homes than needed to keep pace with a growing population, averaging about 20,000 new homes per year in recent years. State analysts estimate at least 550,000 new homes are needed in the next 20 years to meet current and existing demands, and the current shortage means higher rent and home prices.

A workgroup Kotek convened will produce initial recommendations by April 1 for how to meet a goal she set of building 36,000 homes per year. Rep. Jeff Helfrich, a Hood River Republican and a vice chair of the House committee, said lawmakers will follow through with legislation to spur housing production and reduce barriers to building homes.

“This bill is a homeless bill, and we need to have follow-up housing bills,” Helfrich said.

He said short-term changes to state laws governing where and how housing can be built could fill a gap during the four or five years it will take to fully implement the Oregon Housing Needs Analysis and get homes built.

“If we fail in this moment, we fail all of Oregon,” Helfrich said. “I don’t want to fail, because my children want to live and work in an area that they choose, not where they have to because that’s the only thing they can afford.”

The Oregon Capital Chronicle is a professional, nonprofit news organization. We are an affiliate of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. The Capital Chronicle retains full editorial independence, meaning decisions about news and coverage are made by Oregonians for Oregonians.

Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. Julia is an award-winning journalist who reported on the tangled efforts to audit the 2020 presidential election results in Arizona.