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Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek takes first actions on ‘humanitarian disaster’ of homelessness

Governor Tina Kotek gives her inaugural address during her inauguration at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Jan. 9, 2022.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
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Governor Tina Kotek gives her inaugural address during her inauguration at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Jan. 9, 2022.

Newly-inaugurated Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek signed three executive orders aimed at jumpstarting the state's quest to end homelessness.

New Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek put more teeth behind a promised effort to solve homelessness, signing three executive orders on Tuesday aimed at jumpstarting a statewide effort to build more housing and prevent people at risk from losing their homes.

“This is a manmade disaster,” she said. “This is a humanitarian disaster.”

The three executive orders will:

“These actions are important first steps,” Kotek said. “It’s going to take collaboration and commitment across local, state, federal and private sectors to make sure we are acting at the scale and urgency this humanitarian crisis demands.”

The state’s housing crisis is the result of a generation of decisions and market forces that have left Oregon with rising housing prices and a lack of affordable housing units.

Economists and demographers have estimated that Oregon needs 110,000 additional homes now to meet demand and will need almost half a million more than currently exist to meet the demands of a rising population over the next 20 years. Oregon communities also lack adequate shelter space for people currently living on the streets, one reason people in Portland and other cities have seen a spike in the number of tents and sleeping bags on roadsides and sidewalks.

The precise details of Kotek’s plan — how much it will cost, how to bring private developers on board, where new homes will go and how to ensure the construction workforce is large enough to build all those new units — aren’t clear yet. But the new governor, in her first full day on the job, said everyone involved needs to bring new urgency and a spirit of cooperation to the problem.

“I set this target to reflect the level of need that exists knowing that we will not get there overnight or even in one year, but we will ramp up over time and keep pushing for partnerships that will increase housing construction as much as possible to start meeting the needs of more Oregonians,” she said.

Kotek foreshadowed the executive orders in her inaugural speech on Monday and reiterated on Tuesday that she wants the state Legislature to approve $130 million as soon as possible to help keep 1,200 or so Oregonians considered at imminent risk of losing their homes in stable housing.

She stressed that the total price tag for a comprehensive, aggressive housing strategy will be far higher than that, as building that much housing will likely cost many billions of dollars. The governor plans to make housing and more resources for mental health and addiction programs — two problems at the heart of the homelessness crisis — priorities in the biennial budget her office will release in early February.

Democrats and Republicans agree housing and the quality of life problems – including graffiti, trash and public drug use — that come with it represent the single biggest problem facing Oregon today. Kotek and both her competitors in the 2022 governor’s race made solving homelessness, and critiques of former Gov. Kate Brown’s less aggressive approach, centerpieces of their campaigns.

But even with that consensus, political fights loom over the precise nature of Oregon’s approach. Elected leaders from across the state may agree that housing is Oregon’s stiffest current challenge, but they disagree on the solutions. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and his colleagues on the City Council have a plan to ban unsanctioned public camping and force people living outdoors into shelters. Advocates for those living on the streets say that a one-size-fits-all approach can do long-term damage to people who might already be struggling with mental illness or trauma.

Kotek said she’s had several meetings with Wheeler since the November election and has talked with new Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson and mayors of other communities in the Portland region about a collective approach.

“We clearly have a particular crisis in the metro area,” she said. “We’ve been having very frank conversations about how we all work together. It is important for Portland and Multnomah County to work together and collaborate as best they can.”

A coalition of mayors, including Wheeler and the mayors of Beaverton, Bend and Eugene, have called on the state Legislature to give cities $123 million annually for homelessness work. They want more financial assistance from the state, but it’s not yet clear whether they’ll embrace the more hands-on strategy Kotek wants state government to play; on Tuesday, she talked about using an incident command structure for homelessness, similar to how communities band together under a more centralized model to fight natural disasters.

Still, Kotek’s announcement on Tuesday was the most aggressive move yet by an Oregon governor to address the housing crisis.

Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Anna Griffin