Housing advocates rally against threatened federal cuts: "Housing is a human right"

Housing advocates, clients and elected leaders gathered by the dozens in North Portland on Friday, July 28 with a plea for White House officials considering billions of dollars in cuts to housing, homelessness and anti-poverty services.

Don’t cut funding that pays for thousands of apartments and rental vouchers. Don’t even hold the line. Follow our lead, and help us save lives, by investing even more.

“Public housing saved my life,” said Annie Calhoun, a cancer and stroke survivor who relied on housing through Home Forward to weather treatment and seven operations in the past year.

“I’m a tough cookie,” she continued. “But if I didn’t have a stable home that I could rely on, I’m not sure I’d be here to talk to you lovely folks. We don’t have enough affordable housing. I’m here to tell the federal government we need more.”

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The rally at McCoy Park, in the heart of New Columbia, was one of a series of events nationwide for National Housing Week of Action(link is external), led by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Providers and advocates are reacting to what they say are troubling budget discussions in Washington, D.C., around housing: Under the White House’s proposed national spending plan, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development would see a $6.8 billion cut.

For Oregon, that comes to $80 million less for Oregon every year, with more than $20 million in cuts possible just for Multnomah County, according to data from Home Forward(link is external), the region’s local housing authority. Proposed White House cuts would zero out local funding for programs including Meals on Wheels, employment training and housing rehabilitation. Local funding that helps maintain buildings with public housing would be cut by nearly 70 percent.

And after recognizing Portland and Multnomah County as the first West Coast community to effectively end Veteran homelessness, no new housing vouchers would come to help sustain that work.

Cuts would undermine local progress, investments

Advocates and leaders at the rally said that reality would be devastating at a time when our community needs more federal funding, not less, to expand unprecedented local investments that are helping hundreds of people off our streets every day.

Local leaders, including Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith, State Sen. Lew Frederick and Home Forward executive director Michael Buonocore, joined Calhoun in calling for more investment.

They were supported by providers and advocates from groups including JOIN, Self Enhancement Inc., Central City Concern, Bradley Angle, Reach CDC and Transition Projects. The speakers laid out the good that’s come from tens of millions of dollars in local spending on housing and homelessness services.

Portland has approved a historic $258 million housing bond and allocated record amounts on housing construction. The region’s homelessness initiative, A Home for Everyone(link is external), has placed thousands of people back into housing and doubled shelter capacity, led by record spending by the City and Multnomah County. State lawmakers also doubled their own spending on programs that build housing and pay for needs including shelter and rent assistance.

“But all of the people we help face the same thing when they’re looking for a home they can afford,” Chair Kafoury said "Either they don’t exist, or the wait to get into that affordable apartment is long and painful.”

“That’s because we don’t have enough housing. It’s because the federal government hasn’t put enough resources into our community. It’s because we haven’t acknowledged that housing is a human right. And that we can’t just shut people out in the cold and hope they go away.”

Calhoun called herself lucky, even after cancer took half her pancreas and her spleen, after having doctors remove a 15-pound mass from her abdomen. Even though she lost her income and parts of her body, she said she “never had to worry about losing my home.” But now, she said, others who might be in need may not have the same chance.

She said some 2,000 households live in Home Forward’s portfolio of public housing, living on average on $9,000 a year. Many have disabilities or are seniors.

“Thank you for helping me, but please don’t walk away now,” she said. “Most of us wouldn’t have somewhere else to go if federal housing didn’t exist, creating an even bigger homeless crisis in Portland.”

“Massive, sustained federal disinvestment in affordable housing”

Commissioner Smith, whose District 2 includes McCoy Park and stretches all the way east to NE 181st Avenue, looked at the surrounding homes that make up the New Columbia neighborhood. She called it “planned an intentional” and something that unites communities and “should be replicated across the United States.”

She also noted that Home Forward was able to replace the worn-out Columbia Villa a decade ago – remaking it into a thriving and diverse home for that community’s residents – in part because of $35 million in federal funding. That funding is no longer available. As housing prices push low-income neighbors far from their neighborhoods and sometimes onto the streets, she said we need more federal investment to help people own homes and stay rooted, not less.

“Federal housing investments are critical to our community,” she said. “And we’re prepared to stand together to fight.”

Buonocore connected the region’s struggles with homelessness, fueled by a difficult market, to decades of federal cuts to programs that help people in poverty and support subsidized and affordable housing. Even holding the line on federal funding, he said, would mean there’s only enough money for quarter of Americans who need assistance.

“There is no story about the shortage of affordable housing or the rise of homelessness that’s not a story about massive, sustained federal disinvestment in affordable housing,” he said. “Local communities can’t do it alone. The federal government must show up as a true partner.”

He noted bipartisan advocacy, in health care debates, for attacking the nation’s opioid addiction epidemic with $45 billion in new funding. That amount of money would all but double HUD’s budget, and create “seismic progress” against mass homelessness and opioid addiction alike.

“Of course people are self-medicating as cheaply as possible to numb themselves from the nightmare of homelessness,” he said. “And they are dying, addicted and homeless, on our streets.”

“Housing is a human right”

Mayor Wheeler reminded everyone of the urgency Portland faces, as rents outpace incomes.

The city has done more and more on its own to invest in housing construction, including the bond and a record $47 million in additional funding in 2015, while working with Multnomah County through a new Joint Office of Homeless Services. City commissioners also are looking to extend a relocation-cost ordinance approved this year.

“Housing is not an investment. Housing is not a luxury,” he said. “Housing is a human right… The cost of not providing this essential human right is staggering.”

Among many federal proposals, he singled out that no more vouchers might come for veterans looking to get off the community's streets. “That should be unacceptable for every American,” he said.

“With all of these local investments, we cannot let our partners at the federal level walk away from us,” he said. “This is exactly the wrong time.”

Chair Kafoury said she was “angry that we’re fighting in Washington, D.C. over the status quo. Because it’s not enough.”

She said fresh federal resources would help us add to our supply of permanent supportive housing, housing that comes with intensive support services, to help the community’s rising number of neighbors who are chronically homeless and surviving with disabilities and addictions.

And vouchers are key for helping people find new housing as they access mental health treatment, or for families or seniors transitioning off the streets.

“During a historic housing crisis, the only conversation we should be having is about how many more vouchers our community needs, not less,” she said. “We can’t do it alone. We can’t allow this president to turn his back on us. And we can’t let the congress aid and abet him.”

Sen. Frederick, whose District 22 also includes New Columbia and large parts of North Portland, said state lawmakers tried and failed to pass legislation that would better protect tenants statewide. But he noted that his colleagues did manage some successes this session.

That includes new funding for rent assistance, housing construction and shelter support that could at least partially offset any looming federal cuts. But Frederick says he hears concern about the community’s housing crisis from young people worried whether they’ll have a place in the city they grew up in.

He was at Benson High School’s summer program before the rally in McCoy Park and said he had frank advice for 18-year-olds asking if they could expect to afford their own homes one day in Portland.

“Probably not,” he said.

Help, he said – stability – must come from Washington, D.C.

“We have a crisis here. And it’s not because we haven’t tried to do something about it,” he said. “We have done a remarkable job. But we can’t do it alone. We need predictability. That’s what our families are asking for. Nothing more. Nothing less.”