Lawmakers split on requests to buy motels for emergencies
Oregon lawmakers rejected $35 million for a potential community purchase of hotels and motels for use as emergency shelters, but they approved $30 million for the same purpose in communities affected by the Labor Day wildfires.
The first request could resurface if there is a special session of the full Legislature after the Nov. 3 general election, or at a future meeting of the Emergency Board.
If the board had supported both requests from the state emergency fund, all the money would have gone to the Oregon Community Foundation, which would negotiate with cities, counties and community organizations for them to acquire up to 20 properties and a total of 1,000 units statewide.
Among the supporters of what is dubbed Project Turnkey are the League of Oregon Cities, Association of Oregon Counties and Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association.
The board spent more than three hours in discussion, which sometimes became heated, before voting on the requests Friday, Oct. 23.
An August 2019 study commissioned by the Oregon Housing and Community Services Department pegged the number of emergency shelter units required at more than 5,800. The current need is estimated at 10,000, given that the coronavirus pandemic starting in mid-March has reduced shelter capacity — beds have to be farther apart and volunteers to operate shelters are fewer — and the Labor Day wildfires have destroyed thousands of homes.
"It is only 10% of the gap," House Speaker Tina Kotek said. "But it is a start."
Kotek, a Democrat from Portland, had urged approval of both requests because of potential sale offers of hotels and motels that face economic distress from the pandemic, particularly in the Portland metro area.
"The more we can do to help folks stay safe from COVID-19 and be sheltered is our moral responsibility," she said.
"I think that where I have landed is the urgency of the need to take advantage of an opportunity as it relates to economically distressed properties, the different requirements because of sheltering in COVID-19 and the extra burden on communities because of the loss of homes in the wildfires. For us to wait to do more (public) process does not seem the right thing to do."
One down, one up
The general request for $35 million failed. All but one of the nine representatives on the E-Board, which makes budget decisions between sessions of the full Legislature, voted for it. But six of the 11 senators, including two Democrats and all four Republicans, voted against it.
Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, said lawmakers would demand that a state agency make a detailed business case for the purchase of a new computer system. Johnson said lawmakers should insist on similar detailed justification for the potential motel purchases.
"We are going to plunk down $65 million on something that remains so incredibly vague," Johnson said.
Johnson said retrofitting hotels and motels to add kitchenettes and provide access under the Americans with Disabilities Act is likely to be costly.
But Megan Loeb of the Oregon Community Foundation said: "We do not anticipate a lot of rehabilitation."
Several senators, including Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward of Beaverton, said lawmakers should await a potential special session of the full Legislature that Gov. Kate Brown says she will call after the Nov. 3 election.
"I just cannot do it," Steiner Hayward said of the proposed spending.
At the end of the Oct. 23 meeting, however, Steiner Hayward gave notice of a potential reconsideration of the $35 million at a future E-Board session.
Kotek argued against a delay. She said it is difficult to gauge the availability of hotels and motels for potential use as emergency shelters. "But if we wait until we know for sure, we will have missed our window of the winter months and the availability of the properties," she said.
The request for $30 million for similar purchases in wildfire-affected communities was approved. Two Republican senators, Lynn Findley of Vale and GOP Leader Fred Girod of Lyons — Girod lost his home in the wildfires — joined five Democrats in voting yes, in addition to all but one representative.
That request gives priority to such purchases in five counties, including Clackamas and Marion counties, where the Riverside and Beachie Creek fires swept through outlying communities. The statewide target for those areas is 500 housing units.
Although Rep. Rob Nosse voted yes, he said members who voted to aid wildfire victims should have done so for other people who lack permanent housing.
"If we do not pay for this now, we will pay higher costs later," Nosse, a Democrat from Portland, said.
The board, in a unanimous vote, did approve $10 million for the Housing and Community Service Department to aid shelter operations statewide.
"We worked really hard to help Oregonians who are living on the streets," Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said after the meeting. "But there is still work to do."
The Aug. 10 special session of the Oregon Legislature put $200 million into the state emergency fund, and on Oct. 12, the E-Board reserved $20 million for school districts to recover from the wildfires. The board on Friday approved $7.5 million from that amount, but it will require districts first to tap their insurance coverage and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The E-Board also approved $345.7 million for cleanup costs, the bulk of it ($295.7 million) from the state highway fund for removal of downed trees and other repairs on state highways.
The $200 million in the emergency fund was a modern record. But Steiner Hayward, who is one of two Senate co-leaders of the Legislature's joint budget committee, said the amount will shrink quickly given emerging demands such as wildfire suppression and recovery costs.
"The one thing we know about 2020 is that every time we think it's safe to get into the water, there's another shark," she said referring to the 1975 movie "Jaws."
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