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‘Unprecedented early victory’: Oregon lawmakers pass $200 million package to address homelessness and housing

Lawmakers said solutions to Oregon's homeless and housing crisis are now drawing bipartisan support after years of neglect in Salem.

SALEM, Ore. — Oregon state lawmakers passed two bills Tuesday night totaling $200 million to address the state's housing and homelessness crisis, sending the package to Governor Tina Kotek's desk.

The passage of the bills comes less than halfway through the 2023 legislative session, and lawmakers called it an "unprecedented earlier victory" on some of the state's most pressing issues and a signal that those topics are now drawing bipartisan support and urgency after previously being neglected in Salem.

"I think it was important that we take this step early on in the session," said Rep. David Gomberg, D-Lincoln City, vice chair of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, said Wednesday morning at a meeting with other legislators gathered in the Senate President's office.

The legislation's quick turnaround time is notable because it means some of the resources in the investment package will become available in the coming months, rather than later in the year, he explained.

"If we had waited and followed the normal process through the legislative session and sign this bill at the end of the session rather than relatively close to the beginning of the session, it would not have taken affect until August," Gomberg said.

One of the bills funds Kotek's $130 million Homelessness State of Emergency, which she declared on her first day in office. That plan includes increasing shelter capacity and getting people off the streets in areas of the state where the rates of unsheltered homelessness are the highest. 

The other bill is aimed at speeding up housing production and dedicates $26 million to the counties not included in the state of emergency declaration.

"Homelessness is not an urban problem, it's an Oregon problem, and we need to address it on a statewide basis," Gomberg said.

"If we fail in this moment, we fail all Oregonians. I don't want to fail because my children want to live and work in an area in which they choose not because that's where they have to or can afford," added Representative Jeff Helfrich, R-Hood River, vice chair of the Housing and Homelessness House Committee.

The passage of the bills comes as Portland mayor Ted Wheeler is seeking more funding for his six temporary alternative camping sites, the first of which is set to open this summer. The funding in the bills is slated to go to to counties, not cities, but a spokesperson said the mayor's office plans to ask for some of the money – if eligible – to go toward the sanctioned campsites.

The investment package requires monthly check-ins with the groups responsible for spending the funding, which legislators described as a method to build in accountability.

"How many housing units were created, how many people were housed…because when (we) invest this kind of money, we want to make sure that we're accomplishing important goals with it," Gomberg said.

Kotek commended the legislature Wednesday for passing the package and said she was "deeply grateful they answered one of the state's most pressing calls for help." 

Republican legislators argued that the package must be followed up with robust housing bills, along with attention to Measure 110.

"We have to take these incremental steps to fix that and it's going to take all the brainpower in this room and then some to figure out how we have to work that together to get that done," Helfrich said.

Lawmakers described the package as only the latest step to address the housing crisis at the state level, and said they hope it will act as a framework for additional action in the remainder of the session.

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