Northwest Governors Link Housing to Critical Services
Washington Governor Jay Inslee is making housing a priority for his state’s 2023 legislative session, including a $4 billion bond proposal for emergency supportive housing, affordable housing units and financial assistance to first-time homebuyers.
The bonding measure, which requires legislative and voter approval, would pay for 5,300 housing units by 2025 and 19,000 over the next six years. Inslee estimated there are 12,000 unhoused people across Washington.
Oregon Governor-elect Tina Kotek has promised similar measures to boost emergency and affordable housing. Both governors will seek more financial support for behavioral health services for residents in supportive housing.
Inslee and Kotek signal homelessness, housing supply and housing affordability will be priorities in their proposed legislative budgets.]
Inslee says he will work with Washington lawmakers on policies to increase residential densities near transit corridors, streamline permitting processes to speed housing development and give tax incentives to homeowners who sell to lower-income first-time homebuyers.
“Availability and affordability are two sides of the same coin,” Inslee said in a press conference. “Affordable housing is necessary for preventing people from sliding into homelessness, for helping people transition out of shelters and into permanent housing, and for strengthening the ability of working people to establish economic stability and security.”
“Homelessness and housing affordability is hurting communities all across the country. The scale of this challenge is daunting, but we are learning that the new approaches we’re taking can and will work,” Inslee said. “There is no simple answer for fixing homelessness fast. In the short term, we need more shelters that provide more services so people get back on their feet. Over the long term, we need more housing that average workers can afford. Both of those solutions require every community to do their part.”
Since 2013, the Washington Legislature has increased funding for the state’s Housing Trust Fund. In the 2021 session, lawmakers approved funding for rapid acquisition funding that enable local communities to purchase properties such as hotels and apartment buildings to turn into shelters or housing. The number of units was doubled to more than 4,400 in the 2022 session.
Fourteen units serving 830 residents opened in the first year of the new program, according to the Washington Department of Commerce. An additional 19 projects spread over 12 counties have been awarded that will house another 1,000 people.
Kotek Campaign Promises on Housing
During her gubernatorial campaign, Kotek cited a report commissioned by the Oregon Community Foundations that recommended increasing the housing supply, strengthening homeless services, expanding the number of emergency shelters and targeting responses for homeless people of color, veterans and children.
“Affordable housing and homelessness together represent a statewide crisis that must be tackled by all levels of government, philanthropy, nonprofits and businesses working together on collaborative solutions,” the report concluded.
In a statement to Orgon Public Broadcasting, Kotek said, “Oregon’s housing and homelessness crisis is complex and didn’t happen overnight. There are three main reasons for what we’re seeing today. Oregon has a housing supply and housing affordability problem… Oregon’s homelessness services system is too fragmented and existing resources must be better coordinated at the local level… Oregon is just now recovering from chronic underfunding of critical assistance to vulnerable Oregonians who simply cannot work and afford housing due to a serious mental illness, addiction or disability.”
Kotek has promised to declare an emergency to address homelessness on her first day in office, January 9, which would free up money and loosen rules to set up shelters and build affordable housing. In a speech to state business leaders, Kotek promised results on housing and homelessness and on mental health and addiction services.
Detailed Kotek Housing Strategy
The tinafororegon.com website offered more detail on Kotek’s strategy to address homelessness and foreshadows her budget requests for the 2023 legislative session:
- Supply and Affordability: These two things go hand in hand. There is simply not enough housing available in Oregon to meet the need, which results in higher rents and higher home prices. Oregon almost stopped building in the Great Recession, and Oregon has a shortage of at least 111,000 homes right now, with the greatest shortage being homes that are affordable to lower-income families. We need to build 36,200 new homes each year for the next 10 years to meet the need for people experiencing homelessness, to resolve our current shortage of housing, and to meet future demand because of population growth.
- A Fragmented and Under-Resourced Homelessness Services System: Homelessness was already a crisis in Oregon before COVID-19, and the pandemic simply made the situation worse, as more families than ever struggled to afford their rent and existing emergency shelters could not accommodate as many people because of public health concerns. In August 2019, the Oregon Statewide Shelter Study concluded that “Homelessness, especially unsheltered homelessness, is of catastrophic proportions in Oregon.” The study included some staggering figures, particularly that Oregon was one of four states in which more than half of all people experiencing homelessness were in unsheltered locations. While there were efforts at the local level to try to meet the need, the state agency in charge did not have an action plan to coordinate a statewide response – and then the pandemic started.
- Underfunding Critical Supports for Vulnerable Oregonians: During the Great Recession, the state experienced a significant drop in income tax revenue, thus state services experienced dramatic and damaging budget cuts. It is only in the last few years that budgets have been restored to better levels and new investments have led to expanded access to services. But service providers and systems of care were very fragile when the pandemic started. For example, mental health and substance abuse treatment for our highest-need neighbors has been slow to catch up, despite recent new funding. And other programs, like short-term financial assistance for people who cannot work due to a chronic illness or disability, have not been restored to improve stability in people’s lives. We must do better, and we are rebuilding from a decade of underfunding.
Incoming Oregon governors are given more time to submit their proposed budgets. Kotek will have until February 1 to send her budget to lawmakers.