By Amanda Waldroupe, Staff Writer
The Housing Alliance is finalizing its advocacy agenda for the 2011 legislative cycle and preparing the case it will make to the state Legislature regarding why the state should support and, in some cases, bolster affordable housing programs.
In a year when the state’s general fund has a $3.5 billion shortfall and the Legislature will make massive cuts to state-funded programs, this is a Sisyphean task
“This is not a good year to be asking the Legislature for money,” says Beth Kaye, the Portland Housing Bureau’s legislative affairs manager.
“There are already proposals circulating from all sides looking at really devastating cuts to the network of support,” says Janet Byrd, the executive director of Neighborhood Partnerships and chair of the Housing Alliance, referring to cuts to welfare programs, mental health, drug addiction treatment programs, and others.
The Housing Alliance is a statewide, nonprofit collective of local governments, housing authorities, affordable housing developers, housing advocates, and advocacy organizations working to secure funding for affordable housing. The Alliance celebrated one of its most important victories in the 2009-2010 legislative cycle when the document recording fee was passed, which collects revenue from real estate transactions. It is, to date, the state’s only dedicated source of revenue for affordable housing.
This year, the Housing Alliance’s agenda includes a call to lawmakers to maintain support for the fee, and calls for using lottery-backed bonds to finance the preservation of existing affordable housing; increase and expand the rights of tenants who live in foreclosed properties, and pass a law that would make violent acts against homeless people a hate crime.
“It’s a very strategic set of requests for this economy,” Kaye says.
Many agenda items ask the Legislature to simply maintain funding for programs, such as not diverting part or all of the document recording fee to other programs, and extend the sunset of an Oregon statute allowing affordable housing developers to receive tax abatements, which provide lenders an incentive to invest in affordable properties for their preservation.
“It’s mostly about maintaining what we’ve got,” says Cathey Briggs, the executive director of the Oregon Opportunity Network, a coalition of affordable housing developers. “We don’t want to lose ground.”
“It’s more critical than ever that we hold firm,” says Sheila Greenlaw-Fink, the executive director of Community Partners for Affordable Housing.
The consequences, sources say, will be dire. “The need is greater than ever,” Briggs says.
If the Legislature does not maintain its support for affordable housing programs and fund a small number of key programs that prevent people from becoming homeless, housing advocates and providers fear that more people will become less stable than they already are and possibly become homeless.
“What’s at stake is a lot of human suffering,” Kaye says.
With no end to the recession and Oregon’s high unemployment figures in sight, a low-income person’s instability and homelessness could last far longer than it would have in economically better times.
“When people become destabilized, getting them back on track is really time consuming and really expensive,” says Martha McLennan, the executive director of Northwest Housing Alternatives, an affordable housing developer in Clackamas County.
“If we don’t have alcohol and drug recovery programs, if we don’t have homeless prevention programs, if we don’t have ways to keep at-risk kids in school, we’re going to have bigger, badder problems in the future.”
There is one program the Housing Alliance is asking the Legislature to increase funding for. That is the Emergency Housing Account, known as the EHA. The EHA, the Housing Alliance says, “is our most flexible resource to end and prevent homelessness.” Created in 1991, the EHA is used to pay for emergency shelter, motel vouchers, rental assistance, utility payments, and other services designed to keep people from becoming homeless.
The EHA has been funded at the same level, $5.2 million, since 1991. But its budget was decreased by slightly in last year’s budget cuts.
For the past two years, funding from the federal stimulus bill has supplemented the EHA efforts. The federal program, called Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing (HPRP), gave Oregon $15 million dollars over the past two years; $4.5 million was allocated to the Portland area. Maileen Hampto, the public information officer for the Portland Housing Bureau, says all of the money was given to the Housing Authority of Portland and used as short-term rent assistance.
Other local jurisdictions used the money in different ways as a stopgap to prevent people from becoming homeless, and rapidly rehousing people who had recently become homeless.
“That acted a lot like the EHA,” Bryd says.
But 2011 is the last year that federal stimulus money will be available in the state. After that, the only money available to prevent people from becoming homeless will be the EHA.
With a sudden hole in how the state provided rent assistance and other funds preventing people from becoming homeless, housing advocates are looking to the state Legislature to increase EHA funding.
Bryd says it’s not known at this time how much more money the Housing Alliance is asking for the EHA. It is waiting for upcoming revenue forecast, showing how much money the state expects to have for general fund expenditures. Those figures are scheduled to be released in late January.
“We can’t expect the Legislature to fund it at the level the federal government did,” says Ryan Fisher, the co-chair of Community Action Coalition of Oregon, a consortium of community action agencies. “If we can protect the Emergency Housing Account and restore the allotment cuts it weathered, that would go a long way to helping families who need it.”
If at least one of Janet Bryd’s dreams could come true, Oregon would spend approximately $20 million dollars in each budget on affordable housing.
Bryd knows she will have to dream on, at least for a little while. But Oregon’s increasingly unstable and unpredictable revenue, and the subsequent budgets the Legislature is then able to make, call into question whether there ought to be more sources of dedicated revenue, in addition to the document recording fee, that would be used exclusively for affordable housing.
Dedicated sources of revenue could come from a particular “sin tax,” such as on cigarettes, or beer, or even lattes, or by passing a statewide or local levy or bond, which would increase property taxes.
Portland has been considering a local bond or levy to be used exclusively for affordable housing for the past two years.
“It is a hard time to look at bonds or levies,” McLennan says. “Polling is not looking good for most topics right now.”
That more or less leaves the Legislature to raise taxes as a means of generating revenue. But with the Legislature evenly split along party lines, it is unlikely that any new taxes will be created, especially given that the recession continues.
“I would be at a loss about where we might turn next for a dedicated revenue source,” Bryd says. “Anything you can think of has already been tapped in one way or another.”
McLennan, Byrd and others think the Legislature will have to raise taxes. They would not say what taxes need to be created, or which ought to be raised. But they see it as the only way to stop programs from being cut so deeply that they will not be able to function. McLennan thinks that Oregonians would understand the need for more taxes.
“I would hope that (the Legislature) would trust that the community is willing to pay taxes and make investments for things that are important, well run, efficient, and effective,” McLennan says. “If they approach this session of the Legislature saying ‘no new taxes,’ I think that’s a mistake. People are willing to pay, they just need to feel confident that it’s being well done.”
Bryd agrees, and thinks it is absolutely necessary to not only examine the current tax structure and tax exemptions, but to create new ones.
“The state, as it’s currently moving forward, doesn’t have enough money,” Bryd says. “My fear is that the solutions advanced won’t address the underlying structural issues, but will come at the expense of people who are already hurting.”
The first major round of lobbying housing advocates will make is scheduled for February 14. It is not a coincidence it is on Valentine’s Day—the advocates call the one-day lobbying camping “Have a Heart.” Housing advocates will gather in a rally at the state Capitol, and then meet individually with as many legislators as possible to discuss the Housing Opportunity Agenda.
Fisher is helping organize the “Have a Heart” event, and expects at least 100 advocates, housing providers, and others involved with affordable housing to be in Salem on February 14.
Affordable housing advocates are optimistic that the majority of their agenda items will pass through the Legislature. Many items are non-partisan, sources say, and others don’t require any increase in funding.
“I think the Legislature will be eager to do anything positive that doesn’t involve spending money,” Bryd says. “It’s up to us to make a case.”
Many housing providers and advocates fervently believe that a lack of affordable housing for low-income people, and increased destabilizing circumstances, will greatly effect how people are able to meet their other needs — such as finding a job, taking care of their children, and paying their bills.
“If Oregonians don’t have a place to call home, then they can’t address the other challenges that are coming their way. I think our job is to make sure that we get that message out to legislators,” Fisher says.
To view the Housing Alliance’s full agenda go here.