“Housing Has Been a Perennial Issue For Me”

Melissa Toledo, Toledo Images.
Tina Kotek speaks at an Oregon Business Plan event.

Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek discusses how the housing crisis affects all Oregonians, and what the business community can do to help.

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It’s not even February, and Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek has already had a busy year.

In preparation for the coming legislative session next month, Kotek has declared her intention to pass a “homelessness state of emergency” bill, which includes plans to allocate $40 million to construct new homeless shelters across the state.

Additionally, Kotek has plans for affordable housing, congestion pricing and a new cap and trade bill, which might or might not pass the Senate.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are you looking to accomplish during the next legislative session?

The session this year is our 35-day session, so we’re on very short timelines. The big item is the climate action bill. That’s the number one priority for the session.

We’ve also got some smaller items on home ownership and additional bonding asks for affordable housing construction and preservation. It’s probably going to be a $120 million package.

Housing has been a perennial issue for me. My goal this year is to pass a bill helping local government deal with the large number people who are experiencing homelessness and who are unsheltered and without regular housing.

We’ve had a lot of success as a state but we’re in a crisis situation.

You have a bill to declare a statewide emergency on homelessness. How will that help the problem?

We’ve done a lot on the affordable housing side to work with and support local governments, but on the homelessness front we’ve left it up to local governments to deal with.

What we are trying to do with this state of emergency is to remove barriers for building shelters. If you look at Salem, they passed an ordinance where no one was allowed to sleep on the street, but they couldn’t find a site for their shelter.

By declaring a state of emergency, we admit that the system is failing, and we need to do something now to put roofs over people’s heads.

Local governments can take steps to ease their zoning codes, but a statewide emergency would mean they don’t even need to take those steps. Building a shelter wouldn’t have any barriers in terms of land use or zoning, only health and safety.

We have to have a crisis mentality in order to address this problem. It can’t be business as usual when we need another 6,000 beds across the state.

Tina Kotek speaks at an Oregon Business Plan event. Credit Melissa Toledo, Toledo Images.

How does affordable housing factor into the equation?

We’ve been in a housing crisis for many years now. Our housing starts are at the lowest level they’ve been since World War II. We need 30,000 new units per year to fix the supply problem.

I ask people to think about the entire continuum of housing, from temporary shelters to people who want to buy a bigger house.

If we don’t provide opportunities for people to buy a house they stay renting longer. If they stay renting longer, people can’t find rental properties who need them and they end up on the streets.

The entire continuum of housing is really gummed up right now.

How do you unclog the housing market?

We passed House Bill 2001 last year, which helps more middle housing like duplexes, triplexes and quads be built. Now developers will be able to build these types of units because they’ll be allowed to.

HB 2003 makes it so counties have to provide housing data so we can see how many units we really need. Oregon doesn’t collect a whole lot of data. It’s very hard to see where you’re going if you don’t know where you are.

We’re also looking to fund a study to see if we could benefit from an ongoing statewide rental voucher program. Since the federal government isn’t stepping up, we need to look into our own program. That’s the next step on affordability.

The crisis is so large you have to do everything you can across the entire spectrum. No one thing is going to solve it.


How does housing affect other issues that are relevant to the business community?

There’s a lot of displacement going on and people can’t afford to live where they work. When employees have to live very far away that’s a very big burden. It increases congestion, increases carbon emissions and decreases livability.

There are students who have to move multiple times over the course of their education, and studies have shown that when a kid changes schools they fall about six months behind in their ability to graduate on time.

I’ve had business owners tell me they’ve made job offers to people out of state, and they turn down the offer because they can’t find a place to live that’s close. That’s a problem for employers.

Everybody suffers when the housing system is so off kilter.

What can businesses do to alleviate the housing crisis?

One of the things employers did 15 years ago was help employees find a place to live. There were employers like the University of Portland that offered down payment assistance to their employees so they could live close to the neighborhood.

A lot of places aren’t doing that anymore.

Realtors have to get non-traditional homebuyers to buy a home. Once you have a home you have an asset that generates value. Banks have to do more to finance the construction of affordable housing.

This problem isn’t going to be fixed unless all of us come together.

We’re in a national election cycle this year. As a Democrat, are there any policies from the presidential candidates that excite you?

Oregon is having the same problem a lot of states are having, which is that during the 2008 housing crisis building just stopped.

All I can say is that this year all the candidates have a housing policy. I can tell you that wasn’t the case four years ago. It’s a national issue now.

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