Portland City Council previewed a plan Wednesday to distribute $114 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds across city programs that support businesses, renters, and communities disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
The funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was granted to the city in late April, but earmarked for the city’s 2020-2021 budget, which began July 1. A city-appointed task force spent the past months talking with different community groups about how—and where—the money could best be divvied up before landing on the proposal presented to council Wednesday morning.
Not all commissioners are on board with the financial breakdown.
“What I know is that the economic devastation headed our way is not like anything we’ve seen before,” said Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty. “These CARES Act dollars are meant to address—right now—the needs of our community. In my view, many of these allocations do not do that.”
City commissioners are scheduled to vote on the proposal next Wednesday. Hardesty said she would not vote to approve the current package as-is, while all other commissioners expressed their support. Hardesty raised particular concerns with how the funding would be helping people who are currently homeless or at the risk of losing their homes from the pandemic.
The task force suggests putting $32 million toward housing stability, with $15 million going toward rent assistance, $15 million toward emergency household assistance (direct cash to households impacted by COVID-19 for urgent needs like groceries, utilities, and medical expenses), and $2 million toward mortgage assistance for low-income homeowners and homeowners of color.
Many of these dollars will be distributed to local culturally-specific organizations—like Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO), Latino Network, the Urban League of Portland, and the Native American Youth and Family Center—who will distribute the housing aid to their specific community. Hardesty said she was worried that some communities may not be reached through these organizations the city has traditionally partnered with.
“How are we going to coordinate to make sure that we’re not giving the same five to seven organizations the resources… and everybody else is left out?” Hardesty asked.
Shannon Callahan, director of the Portland Housing Bureau, explained that the city is deliberately looking for other ways to connect communities in need of housing assistance.
“We are trying to expand the networks of folks who have access points to make sure this rent assistance is more broadly available,” Callahan said.
Commissioner Chloe Eudaly agreed that the current proposal is a “pittance” in terms of meeting the urgent needs of Portland renters. With Oregon’s statewide eviction moratorium ending on September 30, Eudaly said the city needs to prepare for “a tidal wave of evictions and foreclosures that is going to make 2008 look like a walk in the park.” While rent assistance can offer temporary relief, Eudaly said that the city needs to consider offering legal defense for tenants who receive an eviction notice.
The city’s task force also proposed allocating $19 million to the Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS), matching the amount already approved by the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners. According to JOHS Director Marc Jolin, those dollars will be distributed across a number of programs, including homeless outreach related to COVID-19 needs, expanded food access for homeless Portlanders, and funding to sustain JOHS two motel-based programs created in response to the pandemic.
One of these programs places homeless Portlanders who are at high risk of contracting a severe case of COVID-19—people who are elderly or have underlying medical conditions—into hotel rooms where they can reduce the chances of potentially catching the virus. JOHS has already converted two motels in East Portland into these types of shelters, with another poised to open in Gresham. The other motel program is for homeless people who are showing symptoms of COVID-19 or have tested positive for the virus. Two other hotels, including the Jupiter Hotel, have been reserved as a place for these individuals to quarantine and be treated for the illness by medical staff.
“Our priority is moving those at the highest risk out of congregate settings [like homeless shelters] into hotels,” Jolin told the Mercury Tuesday. “Our goal is to create a safe space for them.”
During the council discussion, Hardesty suggested that money would be better spent creating more temporary housing for people who are currently homeless, rather than bolstering the programs that already exist.
“We continue to spend all of our resources on people who already have some kind of temporary shelter, and almost none on people who are not,” said Hardesty. “We can’t keep ignoring the suffering that’s happening on our streets.”
The CARES package also proposed doling out $15 million for small businesses support, $4.3 million to buoy arts and culture programs like Portland’5 and nonprofit music venues, $3.5 million to pay for tablets and internet access for low-income communities, $9 million to cover the costs of personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies for city properties, $550,000 for general public health outreach, and $20 million to directly bankroll Multnomah County’s public health response to COVID-19. The county asked for Portland’s support after only receiving $28 million total in CARES funding.
The council discussion comes a day after the Oregon Legislature voted to use $200 million in the state CARES Act allocation to support unemployed workers, small businesses, arts organizations, public health programs, and Black-owned businesses and nonprofits.
Hardesty was brief in explaining her overall dissatisfaction with the CARES package during the council discussion.
“There are parts of this proposal that I absolutely support,” Hardesty said. “But… I cannot support a package where I fundamentally have value differences between where we’re investing dollars in this crisis.”
She went into more detail in a statement shared on her Facebook page.
In the post, Hardesty wrote that the proposal “appropriates several million dollars to fund empty buildings that are not open now, and unfortunately, will not open for the foreseeable future”—a reference to the dollars assigned to keep music and arts venues afloat. It’s a point of contention that has divided Hardesty and Eudaly throughout the council’s ongoing conversations on its COVID-19 response.
Hardesty also said she supports purchasing buildings and land instead of leasing hotels for low-income and homeless Portlanders. "I can’t abide by a trickle-down theory that has never worked for the poor, and never worked for people of color," she wrote.
Hardesty’s expected “no” vote next week won’t keep the package from passing—and will only delay the distribution of these funds by a week, according to Mayor Ted Wheeler.
“Reasonable people can disagree whether this is exactly the right allocation,” said Wheeler, before wrapping up the discussion Wednesday. “I believe this [proposal] reflects what I think are the diversity of needs in the community.”