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Portland homeless tax tests voter mood in pandemic

Homelessness generic MGN

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Voters in three Portland metropolitan counties are being asked in Tuesday's election to approve taxes on personal income and business profits that would raise $2.5 billion over a decade to fight homelessness, even as the state grapples with the coronavirus and its worst recession in years.

The ballot measure was planned before the pandemic reduced the U.S. economy to tatters. Proponents, including many business leaders and major institutions, argue the taxes are needed now more than ever in a region that has long been overwhelmed by its homeless problem.

How voters in the liberal city react amid the pandemic will be instructive for other West Coast cities struggling to address burgeoning homeless populations as other sources of revenue dry up. The measure is believed to be one of the first nationwide to ask voters to open their wallets in a post-COVID-19 world.

“I think it’s really going to give you a sense about how concerned are people, still, about homelessness as an issue — and what are they willing to pay in to solve that issue,” said Marisa Zapata, who runs Portland State University’s Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative.

“We know government budgets are going to be eviscerated, so what does this mean for additional revenue-raising opportunities?” she said. “Who could we turn to to bear some of that responsibility and how will voters react?”

A recent study by Zapata’s institute estimated that in a one-year period, nearly 40,000 people in greater Portland experienced an episode of homelessness and 105,000 households faced housing insecurity.

Opponents say they are surprised organizers continue to campaign for the measure when the majority of Oregon’s population remains under lockdown and the economy is stalled. A “no” campaign, almost entirely funded by the Northwest Grocery Association, is trying to draw voters’ attention.

“People are frustrated. They’re out of work, they’re angry and the last thing they’re thinking about right now is raising taxes,” said Amanda Dalton, the association’s legislative director.

Voters in the three counties that make up the greater Portland metro region will be asked to consider a 1% marginal income tax on the wealthiest residents and a 1% tax on gross profits for the region’s biggest businesses.

The measure would apply to individual filers with a taxable income of more than $125,000 or joint filers with taxable income of more than $200,000. Joint filers making $215,000 a year, for example, would be taxed 1% on $15,000, or $150 a year.

The measure has a 10-year sunset clause and is expected to generate $2.5 billion, although the recession’s impact on those estimates is unclear. If it passes, the first taxes would not be collected until 2021.

Roughly 90% of residents and 94% of businesses will be exempt from the tax, said Angela Martin, campaign director for HereTogether, the coalition that crafted the measure.

Voters in the area have a history of supporting measures to address social woes. The same region approved a nearly $653 million bond to build affordable housing in 2018. Organizers are candid about capitalizing on that history to test the limits of voters’ pocketbooks in much different times.

The Portland Business Alliance, whose membership has repeatedly identified homelessness as a critical factor affecting its ability to expand and recruit, is backing the measure. So are a host of state and local government leaders and major sports franchises, including the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers.

Money from the previous bond measures can only be spent on building housing, while this money would be devoted to so-called “wrap around services” to help the homeless or those on the verge of homelessness. That includes rent assistance, case management and outreach, job training, and mental health and substance abuse treatment.

The regional approach, with strong collaboration from the business community, could be a model for other cities, Martin said.

“It’s going to be an indicator of what we can do, not just on homelessness but on the range of economic support that our community is going to need coming out of this coronavirus,” she said. “This is one the first public tests of what do we want our community to look like and how we should pay for that.”

Opponents are angry that organizers didn’t back away once the coronavirus arrived. The measure survived two legal challenges just as COVID-19 triggered Oregon’s stay-at-home order.

Gov. Kate Brown last week asked all state agencies to propose ways to cut their budgets by almost one-fifth, and the city of Portland itself is predicting a $75 million drop in revenue. Metro, the agency that referred the measure to voters, itself just laid off more than 700 employees.

“Businesses and households are racking up huge amounts of debt. You have people who aren’t paying their rent and who are delaying their mortgages,” said Eric Fruits, a research director at the nonpartisan Cascade Policy Institute.

The measure’s fate, in part, depends on voter turnout. Oregon is a vote-by-mail state, and residents have until 8 p.m. on Tuesday to turn in their ballots in person. As of Friday, voter turnout stood at just over 24%.

Government-politics / News / Oregon-Northwest / Top Stories

The Associated Press



  1. The real question is – if this quarantine of the public is so important and has worked so well – how are there any homeless folks left alive? They don’t have a “home” to hide in, sanitation (hand washing) is questionable – according to the panic sticken they should all be “not an issue” anymore.

  2. The measure will fail.

    The homeless will be with us, whether in Portland or Bend or Salem forever. It is an unsolvable social challenge.

    And right now, in specific, folks are not inclined to toss more dollars into the gaping maw that an economy in shambles cannot shut.

    1. It’s especially an American problem as we become a third world country. I have been a frequent traveler my entire life and and American homelessness sticks out like a sore thumb compared to the developed world. It’s always shocking to return here from countries much poorer that don’t have the problem.

      1. I Guess, if you call living in tin shacks, crammed in together, in the Gaza strip, cambodia, china, Inda, Mexico, Venezuela, Columbia, Chile, Kenya, Uganda, ect, not being homeless then OK. It is a world phenomenon. The US just do not hide their homeless. You might want to venture out of the tourist areas once in awhile, some countries do a real good job of hiding their poor, and homeless from the tourist.
        The US does indeed have a homeless problem, and we all know the main cause, Drugs, alcohol, broken homes, mental disorders, to name just a few. Brought on be the fairy tail’s the progressive left, and their lies they have been pushing for years, you know how they tell these people that they will take care of them, well looks like they are doing a great job.
        I am sure if we just gave the “progressives” more money, then they would take care of them. RIGHT.
        Come on man.

        1. I’ve seldom been in tourist zones. No, I don’t consider an extended family living in a tin shack homeless. I’ve been in most of the countries you’ve mentioned. Try comparing us to countries with similar gdp per capita.

      2. And what have the trillions government spent done about it? Homelessness is a hugely profitable industry and the “anti homeless” groups are living large on government tax dollars. There is zero incentive to solve the problem and in fact they perpetuate it. You think the government employees who are suppose to fix this actually want to lose their jobs by fixing homelessness? There are countless bureaucrats, social workers, educators, and busy bodies that rely on poverty. And in your “frequent travels” try leaving the tourist spots. A few metro stations outside of Paris will bring you to homeless camps that make Portland street living look luxurious. But don’t worry. There is probably one republican you can blame for the problem in Portland.

  3. If you feed and shelter them for free, what is the incentive to better themselves? How are they going the be held accountable for any maintenance and upkeep of the housing units? Where is the incentive for anyone to work if “The Government” is willing to supply everything for free?

  4. Why does the homeless problem keep growing after we throw billions of dollars at it? Could it be that providing them more benefits only attracts more people to the lifestyle?

  5. “what are they willing to pay in to solve that issue”
    We’ve only thrown tens of trillions of dollars at the problem since “the war on poverty.” What’s a few billion more?

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