PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Democratic lawmakers in Oregon have proposed a $200 million spending package to tackle homelessness and housing as the state struggles to build more homes and move a growing number of people off the streets.
“Affordable housing has to be our number one goal,” Democratic state Rep. Maxine Dexter said during a news conference on Wednesday. “That’s really where the root cause of homelessness is coming from.”
Much of the money would fund the $130 million housing and homelessness budget request that Gov. Tina Kotek, upon taking office last month, urged lawmakers to allocate as soon as possible. The funds would create 600 shelter beds and go toward housing more than 1,000 people currently without shelter, among other things.
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Kotek’s budget request was paired with an executive order that declared a homelessness state of emergency in parts of the state — mostly near big cities, where the number of people living outside has increased by more than 50% since 2017. While largely welcomed by advocates, the executive order was criticized by some lawmakers because it excluded many rural areas.
In an apparent bid to address that criticism, the package unveiled Wednesday provides $27 million for homeless services in 25 rural counties.
About 4,000 of the nearly 18,000 homeless people in Oregon live in rural areas, according to the latest 2022 federal point-in-time count.
“As a legislator representing parts of rural and coastal Oregon, it’s important to me that we make sure our state’s response to homelessness reached the 25 rural counties and the hundreds of small cities and towns in those parts of Oregon,” said Democratic state Rep. David Gomberg.
The package would expand homeless services for youth and increase rental assistance for tenants facing eviction notices. It would also aim to boost affordable housing construction by changing land-use rules and investing $20 million in the factory production of modular homes, notably those built with mass timber. While environmentalists say the mass timber industry could lead to increased deforestation, officials across the state, including Gov. Kotek, are hoping it will speed up housing construction and create jobs in rural areas hit hard by the decline of logging.
Kotek has set a new housing construction target of 36,000 units per year — an 80% increase over current production — in an effort to address the state’s housing shortage.
Democratic lawmakers presented the package Wednesday as bipartisan, naming two Republican colleagues who worked with them on certain measures. While those Republicans acknowledged the cross-aisle collaboration, they said more work still needs to be done.
“I don’t feel that it’s time to take a victory lap on this issue because the bill doesn’t go far enough to accelerate production in the short term to reach the Governor’s annual production goal — not to mention it’s not a finalized package,” said Republican state Sen. Dick Anderson in an emailed statement.
The package still has to work its way through committees. Democratic lawmakers said they hope to pass it by mid-March.
Oregon has grappled for years with interconnected affordable housing and homelessness crises. It is short 140,000 housing units, analysts and agencies have estimated, and federal data shows its homeless population has increased by 22% since 2020.