By CLAIRE RUSH
Associated Press/Report for America
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Oregon lawmakers passed a sweeping $200 million housing and homelessness package on Tuesday, displaying a bipartisan will to tackle two of the state’s most pressing crises.
The vast majority of the funding — about $157 million — is aimed at boosting homelessness and eviction prevention services. The money will go toward increasing shelter capacity, addressing youth homelessness, and funding rapid rehousing efforts and rental assistance programs.
“This bill will help us build more housing, get people off our streets and make our communities more safe,” Democratic state Sen. Aaron Woods, who carried one of the two bills in the package, said on the Senate floor.
Like much of the U.S. West, Oregon has struggled with a surge in homelessness driven in part by high costs and a lack of affordable housing options. Analysts and agencies estimate Oregon is short 140,000 housing units, and federal data shows its homeless population has increased by 22% since 2020.
The crises are affecting both cities and rural regions. About 4,000 of the nearly 18,000 homeless people in the state live in rural areas, according to the latest 2022 federal point-in-time count.
The Senate approved the package Tuesday night, with half of the chamber’s Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, voting in favor. The legislation passed the House last week with support from both parties.
Lawmakers pointed to the package’s investments outside cities — nearly $27 million is earmarked specifically for rural areas to combat homelessness — as the fruits of cross-aisle negotiation.
“I have rural communities in my district as well that need this housing opportunity for our homeless. Homeless don’t just reside in urban communities,” Republican state Sen. David Brock Smith, who represents a rural southern Oregon district, said on the Senate floor. “I’m going to be a yes vote so that I can be a part of the solution.”
The package will also direct $20 million to ramp up factory-produced modular housing, in a bid to meet Gov. Tina Kotek’s housing construction target of 36,000 units per year — an 80% increase over current production.
Republican state Sen. Daniel Bonham, who voted against the package, said cutting bureaucratic red tape and creating more incentives for housing developers would better address the issue.
Some members of the public submitted written testimony opposing the high spending. But most nonprofits and housing groups expressed support, saying it would help communities that are disproportionately impacted by homelessness and the affordable housing shortage.
“Promoting stability in the state’s housing laws will increase the wellbeing of communities of color in Oregon,” Jenny Lee, deputy director of the Coalition of Communities of Color, said in written testimony.
The package will now head to Kotek’s desk for her signature.
Rush 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.