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Oregon lawmakers propose $400M for housing and homelessness

FILE - In this June 5, 2021, file photo, Frank, a homeless man sits in his tent with a river view in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Paula Bronstein, File)

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Lawmakers in Oregon’s Legislature on Thursday proposed a $400 million package to urgently address affordable housing and homelessness in a state that has one of the highest rates of unhoused people in the country.

A 2020 federal review found that 35 people in Oregon are experiencing homelessness per 10,000. Only three states had a higher rate: New York (47 people per 10,000), Hawaii (46 people per 10,000) and California (41 people per 10,000).

The plan from majority Democrats, which is being offered during Oregon's current short legislative session, would allocate $165 million to address immediate homelessness needs statewide — including increasing shelter capacity and outreach to the vulnerable population — $215 million to build and preserve affordable housing and $20 million to support home ownership.

“We have heard from Oregonians that they want to see action to address homelessness and housing affordability and solutions that work,” House Majority Leader Julie Fahey said.

With the proposed package, officials are hoping to not only provide relief to people currently experiencing homelessness, but to also address some of the root causes.

As part of the $165 million in homelessness spending, $50 million would be allocated to Project Turnkey, which buys and repurposes hotels and other buildings to convert into shelter.

In addition $80 million would be used for immediate statewide needs, such as rapid rehousing, and $25 million would go to local governments to respond to the specific needs in their communities –- including shelter, outreach, hygiene and clean-ups.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler is leading a lobbying effort to pressure the state to immediately fund temporary homeless shelters.

Currently, Multnomah County, which includes Portland, has the capacity to shelter roughly 1,400 to 1,500 people year-round. There were about 4,000 people experiencing homelessness in Multnomah County in 2019, the last time there was a finalized count of the area’s homeless population — although local advocates predict that the homeless population has increased significantly since then.

Wheeler has blamed the lack of beds on state leaders, who he said have underinvested in temporary shelters compared with neighboring states.

“We need the state government to step up and match the funding levels to expand temporary shelter space now and save lives,” Wheeler said. “This is an Oregon issue, not just a Portland issue.”

Rep. David Gomberg, a Democrat representing Oregon's Central Coast, said: “Our rural and coastal communities suffer the highest child homelessness in the state.”

One of the root causes that advocates in Oregon say leads to homelessness is a lack of affordable housing, an issue that the state has long faced but has been exacerbated during the pandemic.

According to a study published by the state, Oregon must build more than 140,000 affordable homes over the next 20 years and not lose any existing homes.

Lawmakers are proposing $165 million investment in affordable housing. The investment includes supporting affordable housing construction projects struggling with market and supply chain disruptions, acquiring and producing manufactured housing parks, and supporting land acquisition for additional projects.

Fahey acknowledged that while some of the proposed investments may have a more immediate impact, the problems the state faces are not going to be solved overnight.

“We have to be thinking about things that will make a difference in the short term,” Fahey said. “But also, planning for the long term and addressing the root causes of issues.”

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Cline is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.