A new governor has been sworn in, and the 2023 Legislature has been convened. So far, it looks like state leaders are on the same page:
The twin crises of homelessness and the lack of affordable housing are on the top of everyone’s agendas.
Good. Because these issues are statewide, have appeared intractable to some, and are in need of bipartisan solutions.
Newly minted Gov. Tina Kotek jumpstarted her term in office by asking lawmakers to approve $130 million in the current two-year budget for state agencies and communities to provide shelter and services to a growing number of unhoused people. She said the money would go to transitional shelters, rental assistance and other services.
That’s out of the current state budget. But she also said lawmakers should expect to consider more in spending requests by Feb. 1, the deadline for her to present her recommendations for changes in the next state budget in the two-year cycle.
She signed three executive orders on her first day in office, one of which declared a state of emergency, focused on Oregon’s five urban regions with the greatest growth in unhoused people. The Oregon Department of Emergency Management will act as a go-between for state and local governments in four of those areas — that’s usually how it works in, say, states of emergency to address wildfires. The Portland metropolitan area will have a separate multiagency coordination team led by Kotek or her designee.
Two reasons: One, by sheer numbers alone, the metro area has the most unsheltered residents. But two, Portland and Multnomah County have been at loggerheads over homeless services. We infer from this new structure that Kotek is going to take the helm on coordinating these services. We applaud.
As John Tapogna, senior policy adviser for ECONorthwest, pointed out, then-Rep. Tina Kotek was identifying the lack of affordable housing as an Oregon crisis way back in 2015. She is no newcomer to this issue.
For those who think homelessness is a “Portland problem,” consider these statistics: the number of unhoused people in Oregon, between 2017 and 2022, skyrocketed. For the Portland metro area, that number climbed by 50%. For Salem and the Mid-Willamette Valley, it rose 150%. For Central Oregon, it’s up 86%. Eugene/Springfield, up 110%. And in Medford/Ashland, up 132%.
On Tuesday, Jan. 17, the Legislature kicked off its 160-day session with Senate Democrats and House leaders from both parties making back-to-back presentations. The priority list for all these leaders included housing and homelessness.
As Sen. Kate Lieber, D-Portland, put it, “The moment really deserves ambition. We are facing unprecedented challenges.”
Is this kumbaya time? Hardly. Republican Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson of Prineville said she supports Kotek’s stated goal to increase annual housing production from around 20,000 — the average for the past five years — to 36,000, but added, “I am not sure how we get there,” unless the Legislature greatly reduces regulation.
So, yes, there will be political wranglings on the “how” of all this. That’s fine. That’s how the process should work. But we can’t help but notice that Republicans, Democrats and the governor are all focusing on housing and homelessness straight out of the gate.
We applaud that. These crises are too big for any town, city or county to solve. These are statewide problems (well, nationwide, to be honest, but let’s focus on Oregon’s woes for now). They deserve statewide solutions from leaders working together across the aisle.
The devil will be in the details. This could still fall prey to posturing and politics.
But for now, we are optimistic that the leaders in Salem are rowing in the same direction.