Housing advocates and community activists praised the Metro Council for its support of a ballot measure that would earmark $250 million annually to house the more than 5,700 homeless in the region--and which would support the approximately 56,000 households that are severely rent burdened.
During its Feb. 25 meeting, the Metro Council unanimously approved the measure to establish the supportive housing services program, to be funded by a two-pronged tax on high-earning individuals and businesses in the Metro area.
Households with a yearly income of more than $200,000, and individuals earning more than $125,000, would be taxed at a rate of 1%. Meanwhile, there would be a tax of 1% of business profits on companies with gross receipts of more than $5 million. Consulting firm ECONorthwest projects that this taxing mechanism would account for $248 million each year.
“There aren’t enough words for ambitious to describe what we are about to embark upon,” Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury told the Metro Council.
“Let’s be careful not to mistake boldness and ambition with naivete, because at its very core, this effort is a very pragmatic one. Every single detail of this ballot measure before you is informed by the collective knowledge and the diverse experience of people from across our three counties whose sole motivation is to end homelessness for good.”
The measure was initially introduced by HereTogether Oregon, a diverse coalition of business leaders, case workers, service providers, elected officials and advocates focused on permanent housing solutions for the homeless and housing-insecure. Katrina Holland, advisory committee chair coalition lead for the organization, emphasized to Metro the importance of focusing on both populations.
“Sometimes we have people who cycle through the system, who’ve been placed, don’t necessarily get the supports that they need, fall out of the housing markets and into homelessness,” Holland said.
Holland, who is African American, is also the executive director of the nonprofit JOIN, which she says works to place some of the families that are often forgotten in the housing crisis.
“We finally may have some resources to truly address the scale and scope, and make a visible difference in our community that I believe our neighbors deserve,” Holland said. “I believe that we will be one of the first in the nation to ensure these kinds of flexible dollars at this scale.”
If approved, the program would need to be renewed by voters in 10 years, or else expire.
According to the 2019 Point-In-Time count of homelessness conducted by the county, people of color are overrepresented in the population that is unsheltered or in emergency or transitional housing. According to the count, 16.1% of the homeless population is Black, while only 7.2% of the general population in Multnomah County is.
For Indigenous, Asian, Black and African American, Latino and Pacific Islander populations, rates of family homelessness were higher than rates of individual or adult homelessness.
Local leaders and housing advocates agree that the racial disparity in housing security is structural, owing to institutional and systemic racism like redlining and, more recently, documented cases of differential treatment from landlords, among other factors.
While a state task force examining racial disparities in homeownership last year submitted recommendations it hopes will shape Oregon legislation, proponents of the housing services program said the measure would mitigate housing inequality in the metro area.
“The investments will specifically address the disproportionate rates of homelessness and housing stability in communities of color,” Jes Larson, Housing Policy Manager at Metro, told the council on Feb. 25. “By aligning resources with culturally specific programming and service providers, this measure aligns with Metro’s commitment to lead with racial equity, and works to remedy the racial disparities created by previous housing policies.”
The Urban League of Portland, which has previously partnered with the city to provide such culturally specific housing placement services, did not respond to requests for comment by press deadline.
Supporters emphasize the program has been exhaustively researched and crowd-sourced. HereTogether spent two years meeting with community members who had lived experience with homelessness and housing insecurity, as well as with members of the Tigard, Hillsboro and Beaverton chambers of commerce, the Homeless Solutions Coalition of Clackamas County, the Homebuilders Association of Metro Portland, Washington County Thrives, and a number of city councils and neighborhood associations. Metro reported it heard testimony from about 450 people during this process.
Local Black activist and Metro Council candidate Cameron Whitten pledged to advocate for the measure at every door he knocks on during his campaign for Metro.
“It is very hard for our resources to be effective when we are not listening to the people who are directly impacted on how those services need to be delivered,” Whitten told The Skanner. “I had to go through the homeless youth continuum, and there were social workers who thought they knew what I needed more than I did, and I did not get the effective support I could’ve gotten. If people don’t believe you can improve your life, how are you supposed to be empowered to do it?”
Whitten expressed concern for the safety of those currently without permanent housing. In 2012, he went on a 55-day hunger strike to bring attention to the Right 2 Dream Too homeless camp. During his work as executive director for the Q Center, he said he saw firsthand that trans women especially are a vulnerable and often under-served or even ignored segment of the homeless population.
“In my opinion, what gets missed is that we do not listen to people who are stuck on the street,”
Whitten said, suggesting “cost-effective, responsibly-governed campsites, that have given people safety and stability” as a pipeline to get them into safe and secure housing.
The measure ultimately received the support of Business for a Better Portland, a more than 400-member local alliance.
“This is not the time to resist action on this critical issue with tight-fisted arguments about tax rates,” the organization’s executive director Ashley Henry told the Metro Council on Feb. 13. “To those who would argue that a tax on high-income earners would negatively impact businesses ability to recruit and retain talent, I’d like to offer a different perspective. Economic vitality depends on our region’s ability to market itself as a wonderful place to live, a wonderful place to visit, a wonderful place to work and do business. But it’s hard to convince people that all these things are true when so many people are visibly in crisis all around us.”
But not all of the business community is supportive. On Saturday, OPB reported that a group calling itself the Alliance for an Affordable Metro filed a challenge to the proposal in Multnomah County Circuit Court, calling it vague and inaccurate.
In response, HereTogether campaign manager Angela Martin issued a response saying the challenge was “neither the work of a meaningful coalition nor a Metro-based organization.”
“It is an alliance of irresponsible anti-tax forces who don't care about crafting a solution to homelessness because their work is in Salem,” Martin continued. “All they are announcing today is that they proudly have the ability to hire a lawyer and don't prioritize solving homelessness in Portland the way thousands of local businesses of all sizes do."