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City report casts doubt on goals for homeless

PORTLAND TRIBINE FILE PHOTO - A new city report questions whether regional plans to cut the homeless population in half are realistic.Portland and Multnomah County officials promise to cut the homeless population in half by 2019 with an additional $30 million in their next budgets.

But a new analysis by the City Budget Office questions whether the goal is realistic, saying the real cost is actually $73 million over the next three years and the homeless population may be growing faster than predicted because of skyrocketing housing costs.

City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who is in charge of the Portland Housing Bureau, believes the report makes a number of good points, but does not take into account all of the additional initiatives underway to create more affordable housing. They include affordable housing units the city will be able to require in new developments now that the 2016 Oregon Legislature repealed the ban on so-called Inclusionary Housing.

“Addressing homelessness and the housing crisis in Portland will take more than direct investment of public dollars, it must be tackled on multiple fronts. It will take the thoughtful implementation of policy initiatives such as Inclusionary Housing, tax exemptions, expedited permitting and fee waivers,” says Brendan Finn, Saltzman’s chief of staff.

The questions are raised in a City Budget Office analysis of next year’s budget request from the housing bureau, which is the city’s lead agency on affordable housing issues. The housing bureau requested $153 million for the fiscal year that begins on July 1, a 116 percent increase over its 12-year average investment and a 77 percent increase over the current year total budget of $86 million.

But the analysis goes well beyond the budget request, to include a review of previous city initiatives to reduce homelessness and the current efforts by A Home for Everyone, a coordinating committee including Portland, Gresham, Multnomah County and Home Forward (formerly known as the Portland Housing Authority.)

The analysis found that since 2005, the city spent $847 million — an average of $70.6 million per year — on affordable housing production and homeless prevention and support services. Just over 70 percent of that money went for housing. But, according to homeless counts conducted in 2005 and 2015, the number of homeless people only dropped from 4,000 to 3,800.

“Many people wonder why, after hundreds of millions of dollars in investments and a coordinated strategy to address homelessness and affordable housing needs, the problem persists; and further, wonder how we can be sure that an increased investment will substantially reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness and will achieve their ambitious goal of cutting the homeless population in half by 2018,” the analysis says.

Mayor Charlie Hales has promised $20 million in next year’s budget for a plan developed by A Home for Everyone to cut the homeless population in half by 2019. He has directed general fund bureaus to propose 5 percent cuts in their next budgets to help raise the money. Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury has promised to match that commitment with $10 million, for a combined $30 million.

According to the City Budget Office, the 2015 homeless count estimated that 4,600 people become homeless in the county every year. The estimate was subsequently updated to 4,900, but the analysis says that number is probably still too low because local housing costs are increasing so fast.

Budget analysts note that in the year since the 2015 count was conducted, the Portland housing market had the highest price increases among the large metro areas tracked by the Standard and Poor’s/Case-Shiller home price index. Portland-area home prices in December 2015 increased 11.4 percent year-over-year, outpacing even San Francisco’s and Denver’s increases. The Portland Housing Bureau estimates that rents have increased at least 11 percent over the same timeframe, the analysis says.

The City Budget Office “believes that this issue of inflow — particularly in expanding economies with limited housing supply like those that Portland and other West Coast cities have been experiencing — presents one of the most critical challenges to decreasing homelessness, because it is a problem that is largely driven by market forces, many of which are outside of local government’s control,” the analysis says.

Finn says the additional city efforts will “augment our public investments for housing those most vulnerable in our community along with the coordinated efforts between the City/County Home for Everyone board to provide homeless services in a more efficient manner.”

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