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Story by LAUREN DAKE (OPB) - Story Source
Published on Wednesday March 10, 2021 - 8:25 PM

Before the COVID-19 pandemic upended our lives and before the wildfires devastated our state, Oregon was already in the midst of a housing crisis. Now, it's worse.

For years, housing issues in the state legislature were considered more of an afterthought; issues to be tackled primarily at the local level. But in more recent history, the topic has taken center stage inside the state Capitol. In 2019, lawmakers passed ambitious proposals, such as a first-in-the-nation cap on rents and a move to end single-family zoning. But never before has the crisis in the state been so profound, making it one of the most pressing and urgent issues lawmakers will face this legislative session.

The 2020 wildfire season wiped out entire communities, destroying as many as 4,000 homes, many of them considered to be affordable housing. With the economic uncertainty and job losses spurred by the pandemic, lawmakers are also trying desperately to avoid an eviction cliff and ensure many more people don't lose their homes in foreclosures.

Even before the pandemic and wildfires, Oregon's rate of homeless was one of the highest in the United States. In 2019, an Urban Institute report found Oregon had rates of unsheltered homelessness of more than 3.5 times the national average. For years, there has been a chronic underproduction of housing. The Oregon Housing and Community Services agency estimated the state needs to see double the production of housing in order to meet the current demands and triple the current production of subsidized affordable housing units.

"For me, I think about it as, 'What do we need to do specifically related to the pandemic and what do we need to do related to the pre-existing crises," said Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, who oversees the Oregon House Committee on Housing.

This legislative session, lawmakers are considering bills to extend the moratorium on foreclosures, give renters more time to pay down their debt and expedite the process to create emergency housing shelters. Democrats have proposed increasing a tax credit for those who develop or rehabilitate housing for agricultural workers. They hope to help kids aging out of foster care with rental assistance. And they want to see the homeless crisis addressed through a racial-equity lens.

"This is the most unequal recession we have ever faced," Sen. Kayse Jama, the chair of the Senate Committee on Housing and Development, said in a statement. "We must stay focused on helping tenants who have lost their income through no fault of their own and help keep people housed."

Democratic lawmakers have proposed spending $535 million to go toward the housing crisis this session. About $230 million would be carved out for affordable rental housing construction and another $30 million would help qualifying individuals put a down payment on home purchases. Some of that money, nearly $50 million, would go toward creating more navigation centers statewide, which are low-barrier emergency shelters open seven days a week and aim to connect those living without shelter to services that could help them. Lawmakers are also expecting more assistance from the federal government, which could be put toward offering renters more relief.

On Monday, Democrats — who hold the majority in both chambers of the Oregon Legislature — unveiled some of the policy proposals they consider to be priorities during the 2021 legislative session. Here is a quick look at some of those bills: