Lawmakers poised to spend $400 million on housing projects

The Oregon House in session (Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Hundreds, and perhaps thousands of people, could be helped to get off the streets under plans being worked on by the state Legislature.

Democratic lawmakers, who have made homelessness a priority, are poised to approve hundreds of millions of dollars for housing and programs to fight homelessness.

They plan to fund a range of programs, including transitional shelters and affordable housing. The package will be announced on Thursday, but Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, said it will be about $400 million.

That’s the sum requested by Gov. Kate Brown earlier this month in her State of the State address. Charles Boyle, one of her spokespeople, said Brown has been working with lawmakers on the package “with a focus on the evidenced-based solutions to address housing and homelessness issues we know work.” He said they include shelters, housing placement and crisis stabilization services.

“These are strategies that work, and that are being implemented on the ground in our communities right now,” Boyle said.

The programs are benefitting from an unexpected windfall of nearly $1 billion that state economists expect in tax revenue.

Homelessness is often cited by voters as their top concern. The latest estimate by Oregon Housing and Community Services, the state’s housing agency, said there were 15,800 homeless people in Oregon in 2019, including nearly 2,600 children. Nearly 5,000 were chronically homeless.

One of the programs that’s expected to receive funding is Project Turnkey, which launched last year and helped various organizations purchase buildings for use as shelters and transitional housing. 

The program, initially overseen by the Oregon Community Foundation in Portland, received nearly $75 million. Most of that money was given to nonprofits to purchase 19 buildings for conversion into shelters and transitional housing. It was left up to them to fund the operations and raise money for renovations. Part of the agreement was that they keep the buildings for housing for three decades and provide residents with case managers to help them get on their feet.

“When we provide a stable foundation for people and we surround them with case management and all the support they need during this period of transition to really make changes in their lives, then we are actually turning the corner,” Marsh said. 

Marsh expects lawmakers to approve about $50 million to buy more buildings.

“We’re aiming for 10,” Marsh said. “We have to be a little flexible around acquisition costs.”

The first project funded by Project Turnkey was a three-story Super 8 Hotel that was purchased by a Jackson County nonprofit, Options for Helping Residents of Ashland or OHRA. It received $4.2 million for the building, which opened last April, with 36 rooms that housed 44 people. It is now being renovated, with OHRA adding an elevator, fire suppression system and other amenities.

“When we’re done, we will have 52 rooms with capacity to serve 72 people,” said Cass Sinclair, executive director of OHRA. 

Residents have access to a range of services, including addiction treatment and mental and physical health care. Case managers also direct them toward employment opportunities.

Sinclair said 162 people have stayed at OHRA Center. They include 44 who are still at the shelter, 32 who’ve found permanent housing and 50 who are homeless, Sinclair said.

No one monitoring projects

Although the Oregon Community Foundation was in charge of vetting the buildings and granting money for purchases, and stays in touch with the sponsors, no state agency has monitored the projects.

Marsh said the Oregon Housing and Community Services Department will be handing out grants to fund operations. She said that will give the state fiscal oversight. 

Marsh said it was premature to review data on the projects.

“Some of these (projects) have only been on the ground for six months,” Marsh said. “They’ve helped hundreds of people.” 

Casa Amparo, which is run by Centro Cultural de Washington, a nonprofit in Forest Grove that helps people find jobs and get into housing, received $2.2 million through Project Turnkey to buy a 20-room motel that had been used by Washington County as a shelter. Centro is trying to raise $2.5 million to renovate the building and turn the rooms into apartments.

There are now 54 people at the site, including 27 children, said Juan Carlos González, Centro’s director of development and communications. “We’re trying to build a transition housing program,” González said.

The nonprofit focuses on helping families.

“The purpose of this project is to help families get back on their feet,” González said.

He said the average stay has been about three to four months. Since the project opened, it’s helped six people find permanent housing,

“None has left without permanent housing,” González said. “We’re proud of that.”

Plan to coordinate local response

Another proposal in the housing package is House Bill 4123. Sponsored by Rep. Jason Kropf, D-Bend, it aims to promote a coordinated response to homelessness among eight counties: Benton, Coos, Deschutes, Hood River, Lincoln, Polk, Tillamook and Umatilla.

They will be expected to work together to develop a coordinated homeless response system, with a central office and advisory board. Each county will be given $1 million and be expected to develop a five-year plan that addresses ways to increase or streamline services, incorporate national best practices while eliminating racial disparities and creating pathways to permanent housing.

“Some incredible work is already being done,” Kropf said. “This is a chance to build on that momentum moving forward.”

The bill was approved by the seven Democrats and four Republicans on the House Housing Committee last week and is scheduled for a vote on Thursday in the Ways and Means Transportation and Economic Development Subcommittee. 

The proposal would give each community flexibility to work with local nonprofits and support services while coordinating with others to learn from their experiences, sharing successes and challenges.

“This is an opportunity to help build some capacity in these communities and have this joint homeless response system to make sure all these efforts are being streamlined … so we have a communitywide strategic vision and strategic plan,” Kropf said.

The plan grew out of discussions in Bend last year, Kropf said. The Association of Counties and the League of Oregon Cities were enthusiastic about the idea, as were the counties, city councils and various nonprofits.

“We face a humanitarian crisis with the increased number of unhoused neighbors in our community,” wrote Kristen Sabo, staff attorney at Central Oregon LandWatch, a Bend-based nonprofit that calls itself an environmental watchdog and land-use advocate. “It is critical to allocate resources across the county and across the varying sets of needs.”

Managers of the pilot programs will be expected to report to the Legislature and Oregon Housing and Community Services by November 2023.

All of the programs that get funded by the Legislature are not going to solve Oregon’s homeless problems overnight. Lawmakers and experts say it will take years to fix the problem. People end up on the streets for different reasons, and they often are struggling with addiction and mental health problems. But transitional housing marks an important first step, said Marsh, the Ashland representative.

“Once you have a little bit of core dignity, then you can be much more open to looking at the other challenges that are in your life,” Marsh said.

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