Oregon’s next governor says her top priority is fixing homelessness, but provides few details
Signs of the housing crisis in Oregon are widespread: cluttered tent encampments in city parks, and along bike trails and sidewalks, as well as people living in parked recreational vehicles.
Sky-high property prices and a shortage of 111,000 housing units in Oregon have exacerbated the situation. Now, Oregon Gov.-elect Tina Kotek says solving the housing crisis will be her top priority.
“On Day One, I will issue an executive order to increase the pace and scale of housing production statewide, with a focus on financing housing that’s affordable for middle-class families,” Kotek told the Associated Press in an email from the campaign trail.
Homelessness, and the increased cost of living in cities like Portland, were major issues during the governor’s race. Kotek defeated Republican candidate Christine Drazan and unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson, both former lawmakers.
Housing is also among the top issues in California, where Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom halted $1 billion in state spending for local governments as he seeks to reset the state’s strategy ahead of his second term.
For decades, California’s state government has viewed homelessness as a local issue, giving cities and counties tens of billions of dollars to get people into permanent housing. The high cost of living has only increased the scale of homeless encampments in the state, leading Newsom to decide to pause spending. He will meet with local officials on Friday to “review the state’s collective approach to homelessness.”
On Nov. 3, Portland City Council members voted to establish at least six designated campsites and to gradually ban street camping within the next 18 months. On Nov. 10, Mayor Ted Wheeler proposed spending $27 million to jump-start construction of the campsites. The City Council will consider it Thursday.
The Oregon Mayors Assn. has asked the Legislature for $124 million annually “for this crisis to be humanely and timely addressed.” The mayors pointed out that that amount wouldn’t cover the construction of shelter and transitional housing projects statewide.
Kotek, a former House speaker, didn’t share details about her planned executive order on expanding available housing. Experts say that element is crucial.
“It’s a false dichotomy that things will get better if we put shelters in while we wait for housing, because people are still homeless in shelters, people have trauma in shelters,” said Marisa Zapata, a professor at Portland State University and an expert on homelessness. “Some people don’t even want to live in shelters — they feel safer outside.”
During the gubernatorial campaign, Drazan and Johnson blamed Democrats for the problem. In a campaign video, Johnson referred to Kotek, a Portland resident, as “Tent City Tina.” In the same video she referred to Zapata, who criticized Johnson’s characterization of Portland as “the city of roaches,” as “some woke professor from Portland State.”
Zapata, who now calls herself “Some Woke PSU Professor” on Twitter, said she’s looking forward to learning about Kotek’s plan for expanding available housing.
“It is largely a lack of affordable housing that causes homelessness. So I love that that’s top and center,” Zapata said.
Kotek also said that in her first month as governor, she will form a team to address homelessness among veterans, families with children, unaccompanied youth and seniors by 2025.
“I will immediately prioritize expanding managed shelters, improving access to mental health and addiction services, and getting new street outreach teams on the ground to help people,” Kotek said.
Jimmy Jones, executive director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, which assists homeless people, approved Kotek’s game plan.
“It addresses the long-term supply side problems, which may take a decade to impact in a meaningful way,” Jones said. He also praised Kotek’s plan to increase access to shelters, substance abuse treatment and mental health services.
Kotek said she plans to travel around Oregon in January to talk to community leaders about the shortage of affordable housing and addiction treatment.
If more money is allocated to address homelessness, Zapata said that funds may need to come from other city programs. But according to Zapata, it’s not only homeless people who stand to benefit.
“When we focus on what we need to do, which is to provide housing, the negative consequences — people who are seeing homelessness or having to clean up after encampments — automatically go away.”
Get our Essential Politics newsletter
The latest news, analysis and insights from our politics team.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.