Portland City Council is prepared Thursday to gut the annual budget for the region's agency dedicated to addressing homelessness if county legislators don't dole out additional funding to cover regional rent assistance. The request illustrates a growing animosity between members of city council and the county board of commissioners, and has been characterized as “political posturing” by local homeless advocates.
In an email sent to a number of housing-adjacent nonprofits Wednesday night, City Commissioner Dan Ryan's policy advisor Karen Guillén-Chapman explained that, during Thursday's council meeting on the budget, Ryan will be joined by all other city council members in voting to withhold $7 million city funds already promised to the Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS) unless the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners hands over $15 million to go toward emergency rental assistance and eviction legal defense. As a reminder, JOHS is an agency overseen by both the city of Portland and Multnomah County that works to address homelessness—both by creating shelters and support programs for people who are currently homeless and by establishing protections for renters at risk of homelessness.
Ryan's funding request comes as part of the city's broader Fall Budget Monitoring Process (BMP, or "fall bump"), an annual opportunity for commissioners to review and make adjustments to the year's budget passed in June. These requests are traditionally funded by unspent annual budget funds, or suggested cuts.
At a preliminary budget hearing last week, Guillén-Chapman outlined a request for $5 million to cover emergency rent assistance and $1.8 million to cover eviction legal defense. At the time, Ryan's office did not suggest any budget cuts to balance that request.
"We are unable to absorb this with the city's budget," said Guillén-Chapman.
It's no secret tenants are in need of support—eviction filings have skyrocketed in Multnomah County in recent months as the state's pandemic-related renter protections have expired. October saw 2,372 court filings made to evict Multnomah County renters, which is 41 percent higher than the monthly average in 2019. A third of those eviction filings have been based on a tenant's inability to pay rent.
Multnomah County is already poised to spend nearly $15 million on rent assistance in its own fall budget allocation.
The county has responded to the surge in evictions by using federal funds, state funds, local budget dollars, and funding from the Metro Supportive Housing Services Measure to bankroll emergency rental assistance. Between July 2021 and June 2022, just short of 13,000 households received rent assistance distributed by the county, totaling $77.3 million. For the current fiscal year, which spans July 2022 to June 2023, the county has $57 million to spend on rental assistance. However, during a county commission meeting last week, JOHS staff and other county employees said that pool of funds falls about $14.3 million short in addressing Multnomah County tenants' needs before the start of the next fiscal year.
At that meeting, County Chair Deborah Kafoury said that closing that gap is definitely "a very, very high priority."
According to county spokesperson Denis Theriault, if the funding gap isn't filled, the county could be facing 3,000 more households evicted into homelessness. The county commission is expected to vote on filling this gap within the coming weeks. It will need the support of at least three commissioners to pass. Theriault said the county has previously raised awareness about this rent assistance gap to the city.
This is the same gap that Ryan's office is pushing the county to fund. In an email to the Mercury Thursday, Ryan's chief of staff Kellie Torres explained that the emergency rent assistance and eviction legal defense programs are shared with Multnomah County.
"The city is turning to the county to allocate surplus unallocated funds to fill the anticipated gap in these programs through the end of the fiscal year," Torres wrote.
While this demand from Ryan's office may help push county commissioners to commit to funding the gap, it's not immediately clear why Ryan seeks to endanger JOHS funding in the process—especially because JOHS funding also goes toward rent assistance.
For those who've been closely following the city's relationship with the county in recent years, it's difficult to not consider this a political play.
"The context behind the proposed funding 'strategy' is a mystery to us and to the few other provider organizations I was able to check in with," said Andy Miller, director of Out Just Future, one of the homeless service providers who received Guillén-Chapman's email Wednesday night. "On its face, this communication was at best confusing and at worst disheartening in that it appears that the city may be playing a game of political 'chicken' on funding the very system that continues to help so many to leave or stay off of our streets."
City and county commissioners have argued over the way JOHS dollars are spent since its creation in 2016, with the city historically pushing for the budget to focus on shelter creation while the county advocating more for affordable housing and stabilizing rents for low-income tenants. At the same time, leadership of the joint agency reports directly to County Chair Deborah Kafoury, creating a perception that the county has more control over JOHS' work than the city.
This disagreement came to a head in recent months, when a city plan to ban homeless camping outside of city-approved outdoor camping sites came into focus. The plan, orchestrated by Mayor Ted Wheeler and Ryan, passed a council vote without any secured funding source. Instead, Wheeler and Ryan have announced that the proposal will likely fail without financial commitments of Multnomah County—along with state and federal dollars—effectively placing the success of a costly city program on outside government agencies.
Kafoury has made clear in emails to the city and public comments that, while the county supports any plan to address the homeless crisis, the county has already dedicated substantial funds to programs proven to address chronic homelessness. She has additionally accused the city of using faulty data to sway the public's support of this plan.
The city will vote to pass some initial funding to back the homeless camping ban proposal Thursday afternoon as part of the Fall budget adjustment vote. That $27 million ask, coming from Wheeler's office, also suggests cutting an additional $8 million from the JOHS budget. Ryan will introduce the county funding demands and additional budget threats to JOHS at this same meeting.
Kim McCarty, director of Community Alliance of Tenants (CAT), said she recently met with Ryan's office to urge the city commit funding to rental assistance and eviction defense, especially as rents are expected to climb in the new year. She suggested that those funds are more critical than ones being used to set up massive outdoor homeless camps.
McCarty said she was disappointed to learn that instead of finding city dollars to fund these essential programs Ryan's office presented the county with a "strong-arm strategy."
"We wonder why the city made a public announcement to withhold money from the Joint Office of Homeless Services jointly financed and controlled by the city and the county," said McCarty. "What has happened to communication between these jurisdictions?"
Miller with Our Just Future said he and other housing and homelessness service providers plan on speaking at the Thursday meeting to express their thoughts on this budget strategy. Miller hopes local elected will set their political issues aside to truly address the needs of the city's unhoused.
"Our hope is that the city and county can quickly move beyond even the appearance of hardball politics and posturing and meet the moment as the weather gets colder and as we fall further behind our goals to create housing options for people who lack them," he said.