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Proposed legislation aims to reduce barriers to affordable housing for at-risk communities

FILE - Sen. Jeff MerkleyU.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley released his new Affordable HOME (Housing Opportunities Made Equitable) Act on June 30, aimed at solving the nation's urgent housing crisis.

Merkley's bill addresses five objectives designed to reduce some of the major barriers faced by working and middle-class families during the homeownership process, including lowering housing costs, providing services to reduce chronic homelessness and addressing the nation's legacy of racially discriminatory housing practices.

"The vision of this legislation is to create a decent home and a decent community for every family," Merkley said at a news conference. "Oregonians in every corner of our state are struggling under the crushing weight of our affordable housing crisis, and like so many other problems, America's housing emergency has only been made worse by the pandemic."

Merkley's bill came in the midst of an unprecedented heat wave that posed significant dangers for Oregon's homeless population. The extreme day-to-day temperatures coupled with the looming wildfire season put those on the streets at risk of heat-related illness, smoke inhalation and more.

"The housing issue and the infrastructure issue and climate are all linked," Merkley said at a Clackamas County town hall meeting June 30.

With regard to the current heat wave, he urged those in attendance to "think about the impact on folks who are on the street" or who have no air conditioning. 

Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said, "Sen. Merkley clearly understands the connection between natural disasters and homelessness, and this bill would provide streamlined help to communities to address it."

Merkley's bill is designed the specific needs of groups at the highest risk of facing homelessness. The news conference included guest presentations about how the housing crisis uniquely impacts different social and regional demographics.

Rukaiyah Adams, board chair for Albina Vision Trust in Multnomah County and Sharon Gary-Smith, president of Portland's NAACP branch spoke about how displacement and homelessness disproportionately impact Oregon's Black communities and hinder their ability to amass wealth.

"Constant displacement is a form of wealth extraction," Adams said. "It means people don't set roots in their communities, they don't go to the same schools. They don't own their homes."

Gary-Smith echoed Adams' sentiments, emphasizing that Black Americans are rarely treated as being equally "deserving of fair practices and policies," and that Merkley's bill provides an opportunity to pinpoint equity as a "key foundation in rebuilding our sense of housing trust, access and opportunity."

Eugene Mayor Lucy Vinis presented statistics illustrating the state of homelessness in the city, including that 55% of renters and 27% of homeowners in Eugene are considered "housing cost burdened," meaning over 30% of household income is spent on housing. She added that 2,500 homeless individuals were living in Eugene as of May.

Meghan Chancey, program coordinator for the Eastern Oregon Healthy Living Alliance, highlighted how a stagnant average income is among the contributors toward the region's homeless crisis, and limits residents' access to important resources.

"Even though the rent and mortgage is increasing, the average income is saying the same throughout counties in Eastern Oregon," Chancey said. "This is just really making it difficult to access not only health care, but healthy foods at grocery stores and other very much needed resources including transportation, and care for the region's increasing aging population."

"This challenge affects all of us. No one should live in a country where human beings don't have a roof overhead, or are forced to choose between rent and filling a prescription or buying groceries," Merkley said. "Enough is enough. It's time for Congress to put in place a comprehensive framework to ensure that everyone has a safe, affordable place to call home."

During the Clackamas County town hall just before the press conference, Holly Landis of Oregon City asked Merkley why there's not enough affordable housing, as she's been on the list for senior/disabled housing for two years. Landis said many people who are in similar situations are living in tents next to the freeway if they don't have a family member to stay with, like she does.

"This is why I'm trying to get housing into the infrastructure bill," Merkley said.

Also at the town hall, Happy Valley resident Lynn Handlin prompted Merkley to connect the dots with fossil fuels, and Merkley agreed it was a "huge mistake" to lift sanctions with bipartisan support on a company building a controversial gas pipeline between Russia and Germany.

"We're saying to China, 'Don't build those 200 coal plants' …but how can we say that if we're still approving new fossil-fuel infrastructure?" Merkley asked.

Rob Kugler of West Linn asked what would happen if there aren't 50 votes for the reconciliation bill, and Merkley said he would encourage President Joe Biden to declare a climate emergency and take actions through executive orders.

"We're in an emergency," Merkley said.

Kyle Gorman of Clackamas Emergency Services Foundation discussed how donors have raised hundreds of thousands for wildfire recovery and prevention. Merkley applauded the foundation's efforts and promised to honor Gorman with a flag that has flown over the U.S. Capitol.


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