Will $30 million pledge cut Portland homelessness by half? – OregonLive.com
The monumental pledge marks the first unified financial commitment toward housing in years, with money to pay for shelter beds, affordable apartments and rental protections to prevent Portlanders from becoming homeless.
But it won’t come close to fully solving the problem, projected to cost $50 million annually for two decades.
Speaking in broad-brush strokes, city and county leaders announced their commitment to a crowd of about 100 inside Portland City Hall, drawing applause with each call to action. The pledge indicates that city officials believe housing has become Portland’s top political priority, surpassing the still-unsolved street-funding dilemma.
But despite the hoopla, key details remain unclear: where the money will come from, how much will be available before July and whether it will come at a cost to other services or programs.
“Getting to this point has been the hard part, getting the political will around the table,” said Deborah Kafoury, chairwoman of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners. “But you see the commitment today from the people here, because we know that ending homelessness in our community is that important.”
Wednesday’s announcement came one week after Portland Mayor Charlie Hales hastily declared his intention to seek a “housing emergency,” a move he said would more easily allow city officials to site homeless shelters. Viewed skeptically by some observers as political opportunism, Hales didn’t initially seek buyoff from community leaders nor did he pledge money.
But city and county officials worked behind the scenes through the weekend, pinning down financial figures believed to be politically attainable and meaningful toward combatting homelessness.
“This is a good day because we’re going to take good care of the people of our city,” Hales said Wednesday. “If we’re going to make real progress,” he added later, “we’ve got to recognize that this is a true emergency.”
Officials estimate about 1,800 homeless people lack shelter on a given night, nearly one-third of them women. Fallout from the Great Recession and, more recently, soaring rental prices have kept city and county leaders from making a dent.
Now, Hales and Kafoury have pledged $30 million, $20 million from Portland and $10 million from Multnomah County.
Of that, $10 million will be spent building 250 affordable housing units for people who are homeless or are at risk of becoming homeless, officials say. Temporary shelter for about 650 women, children and people with disabilities will cost an estimated $5 million.
Officials provided fewer details for the remaining money. Some $2.5 million will be spent on “eviction prevention,” while $12.5 million will be earmarked for rent assistance, housing placement and support services.
“If we don’t take dramatic action, we will not be able to reduce the number of people suffering homelessness in our community in a significant way,” said Marc Jolin, who leads the government coalition hoping to end homelessness, called “A Home for Everyone.”
Hales and Kafoury said the $30 million is more than just a one-time bump, with both pledging to match some portion of the sum in the years ahead.
But it’s not yet clear where the initial $30 million will come from.
Kafoury said county money won’t be available until July, when next year’s budget goes into effect. Kafoury declined to provide specifics, other than to say the $10 million commitment can be made without large cuts to programs because she expects more money in the county’s general fund.
Commissioner Jules Bailey, who spoke at Wednesday’s announcement, threw support behind the plan. “We have to do something,” he said. “We have a responsibility to make a difference.”
But Commissioner Loretta Smith, who did not attend the event, said it’s too early for a big budget commitment.
Smith voiced support for Kafoury’s longstanding work to battle homelessness. But she also worried that Kafoury is reacting to Hales, who is running for re-election in 2016 against state Treasurer Ted Wheeler.
“We can’t be following candidates down a rabbit hole who are trying to out-do one another,” Smith said.
Portland’s $20 million pledge would come from several pots of money, Hales said, although he offered few specifics.
City officials will likely dedicate the biggest chunk from urban renewal districts, increasing the amount of discretionary dollars spent on housing instead of development projects.
The City Council also could commit money from the city’s general fund, and earmark some $2.5 million from a proposed demolition tax plus an estimated $1 million from short-term rentals.
Despite the urgency, it’s not apparent if any of the $30 million will be available this year.
Hales pointed to the City Council’s fall budget adjustment process as one opportunity to contribute. But budget forecasts indicate Portland won’t have any extra cash, leaving only $2.2 million in a contingency fund that’s supposed to last nine more months.
As for the upcoming budget cycle, officials aren’t counting on the same sort of massive, $49 million surplus they had just three months ago, when the City Council ranked transportation projects over housing.
A new year brings a new priority, Hales said, offering optimism.
“We’re in a place where we can make choices in our budget,” said Hales, who appears to have lined up political support from Commissioners Dan Saltzman and Nick Fish, current and former leaders of the Portland Housing Bureau.
The combined $30 million pledge comes on top of $12.5 million from the city and county in the current fiscal year. Leaders with “A Home for Everyone” previously said $33 million over two years could help cut homelessness by half by 2017.
Hales said he believes Wednesday’s financial commitment will deliver results.
“We want to set a goal of cutting Portland’s homelessness by half,” he said. “That’s a goal that I think this coalition and this partnership can reach together.”
Hales’ office didn’t immediately clarify what benchmarks would be used to measure progress or when the goal could be met.
Separately, Hales’ call to action last week – through his proposed “housing emergency” – focused specifically on the issue of shelters for women. Next Wednesday, the City Council will consider easing rules about where temporary shelters can be located, but legal details are still being worked out.
The City Council is expected to revise its rulebook governing emergencies. While Hales already has the power to declare a state of emergency, the revision would prompt the entire City Council to pronounce a “housing emergency.”
The emergency declaration would let officials bypass zoning rules and regulations, making it easier to site a homeless shelter in a city-owned building or a church.
Taken together, with more money and greater flexibility, officials say the changes show that city and county leaders are serious about making a difference.
“Today,” said Matt Morton, co-chair for the homeless coalition, “is an example of what better is going to look like.”
— Brad Schmidt
Reporter Tony Hernandez contributed to this report.