U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici says she has not given up on congressional approval of some form of President Joe Biden's Build Back Better plan to boost federal aid for social supports and climate change work.
The Oregon Democrat spoke Friday, Jan. 7, after she toured newly opened housing for low-income families and visited a warming shelter, both in Beaverton. She said they are examples of projects that would benefit from money in the $1.75 trillion plan that has cleared the House but has stalled in the evenly split Senate.
Bonamici said there's a lot more in the bill (HR 5376).
"These policies are wildly popular across this country because they help people who are struggling. So I am not giving up hope," she said.
"If the Senate changes something and sends it back to the House, we will take it up and have that discussion. I am maintaining my optimism that we will get this done, because it will make a difference in people's lives."
Democrats have thin majorities, but the House passed it on a 220-213 vote Nov. 19. Only Democrats voted for it; one Democrat joined all Republicans against it. But on Dec. 19, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, said he could not vote for it; the Senate is tied 50-50, and Democrats have a majority only because of the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.
But Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden has said Democrats still have a range of financing options — he leads the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee — and Bonamici said public opinion supports the plan's individual components, including the largest federal investment in housing in decades.
"I was disappointed, of course, when Sen. Manchin said he would not support it," she said. "But we are hearing more optimistic talk. These are very popular programs — even in West Virginia, and especially in West Virginia."
With a poverty rate of 17.54% in 2021, West Virginia ranks only behind New Mexico, Louisiana and Mississippi among the states. Of the 10 states with the highest poverty rates, nine are southern or border states. Oregon is at 12.44%, slightly less than the national average of 13.4%.
Among the others on the tour were two Washington County board members: Chairwoman Kathryn Harrington and Commissioner Pam Treece. Harrington said later that the county hopes to secure federal funding for housing and homelessness programs under Build Back Better.
Bonamici toured the Mary Ann Apartments, whose 54 units at 4601 S.W. Main Ave. opened last fall. The $22 million project benefited in part from $3 million from the housing bond Metro voters approved in 2018, plus a state award of a federal tax credit for low-income housing.
She also visited a warming shelter at the Beaverton Community Center, 12350 S.W. 5th St., which opened five years ago. It is a seasonal shelter that Just Compassion of East Washington County and the city operate from November through March. It had been open one night per week, plus nights when the forecast called for below-freezing temperatures, but its operation expanded during the coronavirus pandemic.
The shelter accommodates a maximum of 30 adults, but not families. Washington County is seeking funding for and a location for a permanent shelter.
The recent redistricting of U.S. House districts, required after the 2020 Census, sliced part of Washington County into the newly created 6th District. But Bonamici still has most of the county within the 1st District, which she has represented for 10 years.
The House version of Build Back Better contains $170 billion for a variety of housing programs, including more housing vouchers, expanded federal tax credits that states can award for construction of low-income housing, and assistance for first-time home buyers with modest incomes.
"It has so many provisions to address the root causes" of homelessness, Bonamici said. "It makes robust investments in affordable housing. It will make a real difference for people who are still struggling, and not just through the pandemic. A lot of these issues existed before the pandemic."
Bonamici spoke on the same day Oregon was awarded $1.2 million more from the U.S. Treasury for emergency rental assistance. It was only a fraction of the additional $198 million requested by Gov. Kate Brown — the Treasury reallocated some money that went unspent by other states and cities — but the Oregon Legislature has allocated another $100 million from the state budget.
Oregon lawmakers set aside $200 million a year ago; that money has been spent. The Treasury allocated $289 million in federal funds, which Oregon is on track to spend soon. The Oregon Department of Housing and Community Services reported Friday, Jan. 7, that a total of $222 million in federal funds has been paid on behalf of 32,000 households, though there is still a backlog of thousands awaiting aid that goes to landlords.
State officials concede they were not prepared for the huge demand for rental assistance.
"Sometimes people think these are urban challenges. But they are in suburban and rural areas too. Housing is a huge issue on the coast," said Bonamici, whose redrawn congressional district now takes in Tillamook County and retains Clatsop County. "I have been talking about this issue before the pandemic — and the pandemic has made things even more challenging."
Bonamici also has been an outspoken advocate for other items in the Build Back Better plan, among them:
• Greater federal support for child care to make it more available and affordable. Bonamici said that without it, women face a more difficult time re-entering or staying in the workforce.
• A one-year continuation of the expanded child tax credit, which in the American Rescue Plan Act Biden signed on March 11 increased the $2,000 credit against taxes to $3,600 for each child under age 6, and $3,000 for children 6-17. The credit came back to families in the final six months of 2021 through monthly payments from the Internal Revenue Service. Families will get the rest of their money when they file their 2021 tax returns. Estimates peg the one-year reduction in the child poverty rate at 40%.
"It really gets money into the pockets of hard-working families," she said. "When we looked at where those dollars were going, they were for food, rent and other expenses to keep people in their homes."
• Expansion of apprenticeship opportunities by 1 million. Nearly a year ago, Bonamici helped lead House renewal of the National Apprenticeship Act of 1937. The update, which has not moved in the Senate, proposes $3.5 billion over five years. Though that bill does not contain the money, Build Back Better sets aside $20 billion for a variety of job-training programs, including the amount required to create the new apprenticeships.
"We just passed a big infrastructure bill (at $1 trillion) and we need people to do that work," Bonamici said. "People will benefit from getting those good jobs, and getting their skills up. We need to open up those opportunities for people who have historically been left behind."
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