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Speaking alongside Governor Kate Brown, Ted Wheeler, the Board of County Commissioners and Lew Frederick, State Senator, Oregon District #22, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury delivers news of the first case of COVID-19 in Multnomah County on March 12, 2020. (Photo/Mult. Co./Facebook)
By The Skanner News
Published: 18 December 2020

Facing a COVID-19 crisis that’s made the connection between health and housing clearer than ever, Multnomah County’s Board of Commissioners Thursday unanimously approved a series of measures aimed to provide stability, shelter and housing services both during the pandemic and beyond.

The votes reached across the continuum of services and strategies that Multnomah County leverages to prevent and end homelessness. And they all recognize that people in crisis need housing, and the support services to sustain that housing, so they can stay as healthy as possible.

Through Thursday’s votes, the Board approved:

  • An extension of the County’s state of emergency, which also extends the County’s moratorium on residential evictions for nonpayment of rent, as well as a six-month repayment grace period for back rent.
  • Funds for the purchase of two shelter sites by the Joint Office of Homeless Services.
  • A groundbreaking plan for how to spend $100 million a year tackling chronic homelessness, thanks to the Metro Supportive Housing Services (Here Together) ballot measure voters in the Tri-County region approved in May.
  • A path for new affordable housing in east County, with the donation of vacant land in Troutdale to Home Forward. Home Forward will construct 100 units, its first-ever development in Troutdale, with funding from Metro’s 2018 construction bond.

Extending eviction moratorium

First, the Board extended Multnomah County’s COVID-19 state of emergency to July 2, 2021.

That decision also extended the County’s moratorium on evictions for nonpayment of rent — and a six-month grace period for repaying back rent. Under this latest extension, the County’s fourth since its initial emergency declaration in March — back rent won’t be owed until January 2022.

The eviction moratorium and repayment grace period have been critical for another element in the County’s response to COVID-19 and its economic fallout: work to distribute some $12 million in rent relief dollars received through the CARES Act.

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The County has partnered with an established network of community-based social service providers — while also bringing in new agencies — to distribute rent relief to thousands of individuals and families who have been most affected by the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Multnomah County renters can rest assured that at the very least, no matter what the State does or doesn’t do, they will be protected from eviction in the new year,” Chair Deborah Kafoury said.

Read more about the eviction moratorium here.

Purchasing two shelter sites

Despite the moratorium and efforts to disburse rent assistance, COVID-19 continues to put people at risk of losing their homes and falling into homelessness.

Multnomah County has used CARES Act funding throughout the year to help the Joint Office of Homeless Services stabilize and transform its shelter system. Today’s vote — allocating an additional $2.5 million to the Joint Office — will add to that work, and help people not just now, but for years after the pandemic has passed.

Pairing that new funding with previously allocated CARES Act funds, the Joint Office will purchase two properties for a combined $6.8 million:

  • A vacant pharmacy at 1952 N. Lombard St. that will offer immediate and crucial space for a COVID-compliant severe weather shelter this winter. After the pandemic, and after some renovations, it will serve as North Portland’s first services-enriched shelter. When fully built out, it will resemble the Joint Office’s Laurelwood Center on Southeast Foster Road.
  • A 59-room motel at 1530 N.E. 82nd Ave. that is currently being leased as a physical distancing motel shelter for people with significant health issues, most over age 65, who have been assessed as having a high risk for serious COVID-19 infections. The motel’s current owner negotiated a purchase option with the County. The shelter will remain open during the pandemic. Afterward, the building will be reassessed as housing or shelter.

The Joint Office will also use CARES Act funding approved today to pay for two other parts of its COVID-19 response: work winterizing three outdoor shelters and the purchase of survival gear like tents and sleeping bags that can help people living without shelter in the winter.

“This represents some of the best work we do at the County,” Chair Deborah Kafoury said before the vote. “This is a smart and sound investment not just because it allows us to meet an urgent need created by the pandemic, but because it also allows us to provide critical life-saving shelter long after this pandemic has passed.”

Advancing plan to tackle chronic homelessness

In May, a few months into the pandemic, voters in the tri-county region approved Metro’s $2.4 billion Supportive Housing Services Measure — a historic infusion of resources for services meant to tackle chronic homelessness.

On Thursday, after months of work and with feedback from hundreds of community members, the Board approved Multnomah County’s plan for how it would spend its share of the funding, up to $100 million a year.

Three-quarters of those dollars must be spent on chronic homelessness, prioritized for rent assistance, behavioral health services, and also shelter and street outreach. The plan also embraces a mandate to address and work toward eliminating racial disparities in chronic homelessness.

The plan, which must now be approved by Metro, serves as a high-level document ahead of additional work next year to produce a more specific list of program investments. 

“Had you told me 10 years ago that we would be in this moment, approving a plan to end homelessness across our community with the strategy and resources to meet that need, I would have had a hard time believing it,” Chair Kafoury said. “There are too many people to thank who have contributed over the years. And in truth, none of them did it for the recognition — they did it because they believe in the fundamental truth that no one in our community should ever be homeless.”

Partnering with Home Forward to create 100 affordable housing units in east County

East Multnomah County is on track to gain more than 100 units of affordable housing, part of a new agreement between the County and Home Forward, the region’s public housing authority.

On Thursday, Dec. 17, the Board of County Commissioners said yes to transferring 3.54 acres of vacant land in Troutdale to Home Forward for use as affordable housing. It will be Home Forward’s first project in Troutdale, and it will draw from funding approved through Metro’s 2018 regional affordable housing construction measure.

The County originally purchased the land, located at the north end of Northeast 257th Drive, in 2017 for $1.25 million as a potential site for a new Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office headquarters. But since then, the property was found to no longer reflect the Sheriff’s Office’s priorities and better aligns, instead, with the County’s goal to expand affordable housing. 

Work to set the transfer in motion started with Chair Kafoury’s Office, with support from Commissioner Lori Stegmann, whose district covers east County.

“Not only are we building affordable housing for people who desperately need it, but we are also supporting revitalization,” said Commissioner Stegmann. “The fact that we are making sure people have access to all the things we want in a community is really heartwarming and also incredible.”

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