FILE — Oregon homeless

A makeshift shelter on the streets of Portland, Oregon. Some 10,000 Oregonians remain unsheltered on a given night, according to reports commissioned by the Oregon Legislature. 

(The Center Square) — Year after year, Oregon lawmakers are faced with the same problem legislating ways to house the homeless: paperwork.

No matter the cost or the scale of a state housing project, cities and counties are often bogged down by complex land use rules and local politics to give them the green light.

In 2019, state lawmakers took a big step in freeing up public land for duplexes, banning cities of more than 10,000 people from limiting areas to single-family homes. In the Portland metro area, cities and counties must permit quadplexes and cottage housing clusters to be built around a common yard.

A pair of bills this session, House Bills 2004 and 2006, aim to cut out the red tape in the shelter-building process. Both take effect immediately upon passage.

HB 2006 requires local governments to approve and waive land use rules for all homeless shelter applications save for those that pose an "unreasonable public health or safety risk" for homeless persons. It also allows shelters to offer food, laundry, and showers at the maximum cost of $300 for clients who want them.

HB 2004 sets aside $26.5 million in general fund dollars for emergency shelter grants and another $2 million for technical assistance running approved shelters. It also commissions a state housing study due by Sep. 15, 2022. 

The two bills, part of a proposal introduced last year by House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, is on its second go-round after it died on the floor amid a GOP walkout protest over a cap-and-trade bill.

Testifying to the state House Committee on Tuesday, Kotek stressed that time is of the essence if the state Legislature stands a chance of approving new shelters this year.

"I'd like to see if we can move this as quickly as possible for for communities to have access to these tools as soon as possible," Kotek said.

Oregon's homeless population continues to rank among the largest in the nation. While the state accounts for 1.3% of the U.S. population, its homeless made up 2.6% of the country's homeless population in 2019. 

The situation is dire for Oregon's more than 14,000 estimated homeless. At least a quarter were unsheltered in 2019, an Urban Institute report found, in a state that sees rain more than half the year.

According to Andrea Bell, director of housing stabilization at the Oregon Housing and Community Services, the state is short some 5,800 shelter beds.

"The demand for shelter and the pressure and the expectations on our shelter providers have substantially changed in these past months," Bell testified to the state Housing Committee on Tuesday. "We probably have more limited shelter bed capacity just to really adhere to social distancing guidelines guidelines."

The bills are supported by local leaders from around Western and Central Oregon where homelessness is severest. Portland, where rent averages at $1,538 per month, boasts some 5,800 homeless people by 2015's count. In Salem, there were 1,500 homeless in 2019, and 2,165 homeless in Eugene that same year.

For shelter providers, the bills mean a chance at offering a sense of permanence and stability for the homeless and shelter coordinators.

Over the past decade, warming centers like those offered by Hood River Shelter Services migrate from place to place waiting on what can be a long approval process. Last winter, it served 94 homeless people in a rented church room. This year, it's in a church parking lot.

"We explored over a dozen public and privately owned sites and finally secure in this winter's location at the 11th hour," Hood River Shelter Services Director Sarah Kellems told state lawmakers. "Our application was submitted literally on the final day of the emergency citing window last September. Without it, the shelter would not have opened this winter."

In the meantime, the state's ongoing efforts to house displaced wildfire survivors and the homeless in motels as part of Project Turnkey may come to fruition past this winter.

An Ashland Super 8 Motel is so far the first and only site to be approved for the $65 million endeavor by the Oregon Community Foundation, but the foundation's Tom Wolf testified that 18 more are "deep in the approval process."

Wolf shared Kotek's concerns on Tuesday that the bills, especially HB 2004, must be passed as soon as possible.

"We need this bill," Wolf said. "It won't help us if it doesn't get done until June or July."

Housing continues to dominate legislation this session as the Oregon Legislature considers an estimated 4,000 bills and plans on resuming some of its in-person business at the state capitol by early March.

The state's eviction moratorium, which was the subject of a lawsuit by Oregon landlords in December, also awaits court action. The moratorium is set to expire on June 30.

Staff Reporter

Tim Gruver is a politics and public policy reporter. He is a University of Washington alum and the recipient of the 2017 Pioneer News Award for Reporting. His work has appeared in Politico, the Kitsap Daily News, and the Northwest Asian Weekly.