From cancer survivor to mayor, Portland fans of affordable housing rally to forestall federal cuts

Oregon could lose $80 million a year in federal housing funding in the proposed White House budget, and the hit to the Portland area could be disastrous for low-income veterans, seniors and families, elected leaders and advocates warned Friday.

The potential cutback for Multnomah County would be about $20 million a year, money now counted on to help homeless people find permanent housing, keep families on the cusp of losing housing off the street and enable nonprofits to buy and develop affordable housing.

That’s housing that people like Annie Calhoun needed during her fight with pancreatic cancer. She said Friday that public housing prevented her from being homeless when she lost her income and independence, along with some part of her pancreas, her entire spleen and some teeth.

"I’m a tough cookie, but if I didn’t have a stable to rely on, I don’t know that I would be here talking to you," she said.

Calhoun told her story in McCoy Park at the 82-acre New Columbia affordable housing community that the Multnomah County housing bureau developed beginning in 2003, in part with a federal grant.

She lives in one of 21,000 low-income apartments owned by Multnomah County. Almost as many people wait on a list for public housing. Many of the residents of New Columbia and Calhoun’s building in Sellwood are seniors, people with disabilities, veterans and families with children who can’t make enough money to keep up with Portland’s rising rents.

She was joined by local leaders who hosted the event as part of a nationwide effort to urge Congress and the White House to dedicate more money to affordable housing and combatting homelessness.

"Budget cuts are unacceptable. The status quo is unacceptable," said Michael Buonocore, executive director of Home Forward, Multnomah County’s housing agency.

Buonocore said that the current federal budget only allows a quarter of people in Multnomah County who need help with permanent housing to get it. The federal government has rolled back its investments in public housing steadily since about the 1980s, he said. That period of sustained disinvestment, many homeless and low-income housing experts say, has fanned the flames of large-scale homeless crisis in Portland. In other cities, too, apartment vacancy rates are low and rents are rising.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler pointed to a trio of efforts the city has made recently to combat the shortage of affordable housing: a voter-endorsed housing bond, an ordinance making landlords pay relocation costs for some diplaced renters and enticements for developers to build affordable housing.

But he said the city can’t make up a gap if federal funds don’t come through.

Portland, for example, claimed the title of the first West Coast city to effectively end veterans’ homelessness, meaning that if a veteran wants housing, there is a way to obtain it. But that program relies on a specific voucher program that would be flat-lined under the proposed White House budget.

If that budget were to pass Congress, as more veterans become homeless in Multnomah County, there would be no new available vouchers for them to find housing again.

"Housing is not an investment. Housing is not a luxury. Housing is a human right," Wheeler said.

The city and county’s Joint Office of Homeless Services received more money from both governments this year than ever before. The state also dedicated twice its usual allotment for emergency housing and homeless programs and doubled its low-income housing construction budget.

Multnomah County Chairwoman Deborah Kafoury said Oregonians will still suffer, though, if the proposed federal housing budget is adopted in its current form.

"They should be talking about how many more vouchers we need, not less," Kafoury said. "We won’t allow this president and this Congress to turn their backs on us."

— Molly Harbarger

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