When the Portland City Council voted last week on how to allocate $114 million of federal relief funding, commissioners vowed that priority would be given to local communities of color, which have suffered disproportionately poor health and economic impacts during the pandemic.
“We’ve been very careful to center Black, Indigenous, and people of color as we make these decisions,” Commissioner Amanda Fritz said during the July 22 meeting.
“And as we continue to navigate these uncertain times, it’s imperative we do not return to business as usual.
"The distribution of CARES Act funding gives us the opportunity to implement a new model that values the lived experience and expertise of Black, Indigenous, and people of color in our Portland community.”
Still, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty offered the lone dissenting vote against the budget.
“In my mind, we have people who are in desperate need of resources, and I don’t believe we did the best job we could of making sure that people would benefit from these limited dollars that we have, so with sadness, I cast my vote as no,” Hardesty said.
In a lengthy session on July 15, Hardesty elaborated that the $19.1 million earmarked for homeless response was far too little to shelter a population that is among the most vulnerable to covid-19. The council agreed that the funds were insufficient for solving what Hardesty has described as inevitable and unprecedented economic devastation.
“We are not solving the problems,” Wheeler said. “This is truly emergency support that will get us through this phase of the covid crisis, but this can’t be the end.”
Eudaly pointed out that 55% of the Portland workforce is employed by small businesses.
“When we have a need that’s much greater than our resources, we have to be very smart and strategic about how we spend those resources,” Eudaly said, “and pouring it all into something like rent assistance will provide an extremely short-term benefit, and ultimately as this emergency wears on and people continue to be unable to pay their rent, it will have no long-term benefit, unlike supporting our arts and culture community and our small businesses.”
The federal Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act allocated $2 trillion for public health expenses and economic support, giving $1.6 billion to Oregon. Under the CARES Act guidelines, the relief funding can only be used on necessary expenditures related to the covid-19 outbreak and made between March 1 and Dec. 30 of this year. The funding cannot be used to make up for lost revenue, or items already accounted for in the yearly budget.
The council credited Office of Equity and Human Rights director Markisha Smith, Ed.D, with helping prioritize the budget through an equity lens, acknowledging that communities of color in Portland and nationwide have suffered inordinate health and economic impacts during the pandemic.
In the approved budget, $20.4 million will go to household assistance, which includes food security and cash assistance programs.
The city’s Housing Bureau will oversee the dispersal of $17 million for rent assistance, BIPOC mortgage assistance, and mortgage counseling to help vulnerable homeowners to navigate foreclosure prevention programs.
Questioned about who would be eligible for rent assistance, Shannon Callahan, director of the Portland Housing Bureau, said her department was working to identify families that have below 50% of the average monthly income and who are at the greatest risk of eviction when the statewide eviction moratorium ends on Sept. 30. After that, tenants who are behind on rent have six months to pay arrears, and would need to be current on their rent for October in order not to face eminent eviction.
“We are putting that lens on the work of our community-based providers and making sure that we are prioritizing -- through the networks that exist in the community, those we’ve worked with and those we haven’t in the past -- and making sure we’re reaching BIPOC communities,” Callahan said. “Especially Black, Indigenous, and Latinx, those who have been either hardest hit or unable to access prior allocations of funding due to federal restrictions.”
“We’re really trying to collect as minimal data as possible, so people who are undocumented feel more comfortable applying to access these funds,” Giyen Kim, strategic project manager for the city’s Office of Management and Finance, told the council.
Such support cannot be extended to city-owned or publicly owned housing, under CARES Act guidelines.
The budget also prioritizes access to technology by allocating $3.5 million for digital equity. Kim explained this would allow the city to create up to 5,000 technology kits, each comprised of a Chromebook, internet vouchers, and culturally specific training.
“Addressing this inequity is central to getting BIPOC communities out of these public health and economic crises,” Andrea Valderrama, advocacy director for the Coalition of Communities of Color, told the council on July 15. “Without a device and reliable internet access, it is challenging to access housing access, it is challenging to look up emergency food programs, it is challenging to find necessary health services, and it is almost impossible to complete educational assignments for our classes. These resources are essential.”
CARES funding will go to Addressing the Digital Divide Work Group, a part of the city’s Economic Impact & Intervention Task Force, which coordinated the Technology Kit Pilot program for 100 community members this year. The group reported that 84% of those recipients are members of the BIPOC community, and that according to 2018 data, 32,000 households in Multnomah County are not connected to the internet, and at least 16,230 households do not have computing devices of any kind.
“If a larger sector of Portland’s communities of color had improved access to devices and internet, they would be able to use telehealth services during the pandemic and possibly reduce in-person trips to clinics,” Christine Llobregat with the city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability told The Skanner.
“I think it’s essential that we fund the digital divide,” Wheeler said during the July 22 session.
“Given the reality that right now in order to gain access to either educational or economic opportunities in this covid crisis, you must have access to digital tools, like the one that we’re using to conduct our democratic process here at Portland City Hall.”
James Kelly, fund development manager for education nonprofit KairosPDX, praised the decision and explained that his organization was paying special attention to accessibility with the approach of a new school year that will likely be remote.
“Kairos is gearing up for the fall, and we need to address this limited access to resources needed for online education,” Kelly said. “For far too many Portlanders, especially Black and brown students, theirs is a different story. They have limited access to technology and internet, and the lack of reliable access, technology, and digital literacy for communities of color creates economic, social, and educational inequities.”
Lee Miller participates in the Flip the Script re-entry program through Central City Concern, which has provided similar services. He told the council that he is low-income, disabled, and currently unemployed, but that assistance with technology has helped him in his transition after 20 years of incarceration.
“Tech has changed so much in that time,” Miller said. “The Chrome tablet that was donated to me will be a great help to me in so many ways...this is a learning experience, and it also gives me my independence.”
Members of the local creative community argued that the $4.3 million marked to fund arts and cultures programs will also benefit the city’s most vulnerable populations.
Subashini Ganesan, current creative laureate of Portland, detailed for the council how BIPOC artist grants, venue support, and assistance to the Portland’5 Centers for the Arts would serve artists of color.
“BIPOC artists in our city have always been, but in particular now during covid and the social justice revolution work, disproportionately stymied by the stresses of health, safety, and the difficulties of our political, economic and real estate situation,” Ganesan said, adding,
“BIPOC artists are predominately contracted for hourly work that is not consistent year-round.
"[They] are self-producing artistic events, and sell their own tickets, and might be presented by arts venues based on competitive selection, and so they only receive a one-time payment. Therefore, providing immediate financial resources to artists and creatives who are predominately Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian and POC folks, is both critical and correct.”
Meanwhile, Oregon state legislators approved $62 million from the state’s CARES Act share to establish the Oregon Cares Fund, which will fund two grants -- administered by the Black United Fund and the Contingent -- to provide direct financial support to Black individuals and families, small businesses, and Black community-based organizations.
Black legislators Sen. Lew Frederick (D-Portland) and Sen. James Manning (D-Eugene) pushed hard against Republican colleagues’ concerns that The Oregon Cares Fund: A Fund for Black Relief and Resiliency was unconstitutional, and it was approved last week.