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Oregon Democrats propose $400 million aimed at homelessness

With a record tax windfall, Oregon lawmakers propose spending about half of it on initiatives aimed at homelessness and affordable housing.

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — Lawmakers on Thursday proposed a $400 million investment in housing and homeless services, after discovering a huge tax windfall.

The proposal, would invest $215 million for new projects to build affordable housing, $165 million for homeless services and $20 million on programs to help people into home ownership. Democrats have two weeks to convince their Republican counterparts to make the proposal a reality, as the state’s short legislative session nears a close.

The plan would significantly increase shelter capacity and access to showers and bathroom facilities, help people recently displaced from housing to find caseworkers and quick placement into new housing. The money will pay to keep families in affordable housing, pay for the construction of new affordable housing, buy and produce manufactured housing parks and pay for the purchase of land for new projects.

“Oregon needs to build more housing,” said Rep. Mark Meek, a Democrat from Clackamas County. "As a realtor, I know that too many families struggle to make ends meet with rising rents and home process. It’s time to stop making excuses. With these investments, we can take an active role in building more affordable housing to help bring costs down.”

House Majority Leader Rep. Julie Fahey, a Democrat from Eugene, emphasized that the money would be spent by local leadership in cities and counties across the state, but that it wouldn’t be available to use for sweeps that move people from the camps they have managed to set up without offering housing.

“We knew heading into the session that we were wanting to make a significant investment in addressing homelessness in the state. The conversations (that led to this proposal) were about how,” Fahey said. “We want to prioritize people first, doing it with compassion and in a way that invests in solutions that are actually effective.”

And the plan would allocate $50 million for Project Turnkey, which under the Oregon Community Foundation turns old, unused hotels into emergency shelters.

Lawmakers must pass the budget by March 7, which Democrats hope will contain their housing plan. If they don’t succeed, the state’s chronic underproduction of housing is likely to make homelessness continue to grow. A report published in February by the state-funded Oregon Housing and Community Services found that the state needs roughly 140,000 new homes immediately in order to house Oregon’s current population. The report found that the state will need an additional 544,000 new homes over the next two decades.

“These findings show that Oregon is failing its low-income residents in rural and urban communities alike. The need to transform our system of planning for housing is clear,” the report states. “Our current system, designed during periods of lower growth when more federal funding was available for affordable housing, is simply not designed to meet today’s need.”

Additional legislation, House Bill 4123, would create eight locally led pilot programs around the state, helping communities leverage existing programs for people on the verge of homelessness and creating pathways to permanent housing for those in shelters.

Our Rural and coastal communities suffer the highest child homelessness in the state, said Rep. David Gomberg, a Democrat from the Central Coast. “We’re facing a critical housing crisis and this legislation gives us the resources and the flexibility needed to address specific local needs.”

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