Chair Kafoury talks housing, equality, fiscal responsibility in State of the County address

June 12, 2015

Chair Kafoury delivers her 2015 State of the County address on Friday, June 12

Incomes are up and business is thriving. New apartments are rising in the heart of downtown Portland in anticipation of thousands of affluent new residents.

That is one reality, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said Friday during the 2015 State of the County address to the City Club of Portland. In another reality, one she sees everyday, the number of living wage jobs is down.

“Far too many people are just one unexpected setback -- a job loss, a bad doctor’s visit, a divorce -- away from the edge,” she said.

While white families have recovered wages lost during the last recession, no one else has.

“If you’re Latino,  there are three Portland neighborhoods where you can reasonably afford to buy a home,” she said. “If you’re Black or Native American? Zero.”

Kafoury outlined efforts to narrow the socioeconomic divide that disproportionately affects people of color. She highlighted initiatives to increase affordable housing, combat homelessness, support at-risk youth, and narrow racial and ethnic health disparities in the coming fiscal year.

She spoke to a room of 450 at the City Club of Portland, a civics group that only accepted male members until the 1970s. Then her mother Gretchen Kafoury rallied a protest and forced it to accept women, including her.

Gretchen Kafoury, who died in March at age 72, was a fierce advocate for women’s rights and affordable housing. She served as a Portland city council member, a state legislator and a county commissioner.

“How she lived her life is what drives me today as a public servant,” she said. “She gave shelter to the homeless, provided a safe haven to women escaping domestic violence, and taught children in our public schools.”

Stable housing

Deborah Kafoury has taken up her mother’s passion for stable and affordable housing, calling for $2 million in ongoing new funding to help families secure permanent housing, and an additional $5 million to increase the number of affordable units.

The new investments support an initiative called A Home for Everyone, intended to break down the barriers raised by jurisdictions operating in silos.

“It used to be that homeless families were the county’s responsibility and homeless individuals were the responsibility of the city of Portland,” she said. “Now the county, the cities of Portland and Gresham, together with Home Forward, Meyer Memorial Trust and our community partners, are taking a more coordinated approach.”

Top on the collective agenda is an effort to find stable housing for every homeless veteran and cutting by half the number of people living on the street or in shelters. In the first four months of 2015, A Home for Everyone found long-term housing for 208 veterans.

Kafoury estimates the collaborative needs to secure housing for 61 veterans a month to meet its goal of ending homelessness for veterans by the end of the year. An investment in social and support services will help make sure veterans and families stay housed.

“Once we put a roof over someone’s head, we can begin to build a solid foundation under their feet,” she said. “A stable home allows us to more effectively tackle other problems -- like drug addiction, mental health issues or helping them find a job.”

Solid financial footing

The county is in better financial shape than it has been for years, allowing the Board to both increase the county’s investments in housing, health and social services, and set something aside for leaner years.

Kafoury’s proposed budget would balance the budget for three years and fully fund the reserves at 10 percent of the general fund. It also anticipates a population with growing need of services and a multimillion-dollar hike in PERS costs.

And it would take $28 million in one-time funds to invest in replacing the county courthouse.

“It is seismically unsafe, and fixing it is my top capital priority,” Kafoury said. “After 45 years and 29 reports that outline the hazard, action is way overdue.”

As Chair, she is also overseeing the completion of the Sellwood Bridge replacement, which earned a safety score of 2 on a scale of 1-to-100. That project is expected to be completed early next year.

And as the community’s social safety net, the Board of Commissioners set a new minimum wage for county employees at $15 an hour -- the first elected body in the state to take such action. And after discovering the same employees were taking an average of six weeks unpaid leave following a birth of a child, the Chair said she’ll propose that all county employees receive paid family leave.

“It is our duty to lead on policies that make things better for working families,” she said.

Supporting our youth

Multnomah was the first Oregon county to take another stand: one against allowing stores to sell unregulated nicotine-infused vaping supplies to kids.

“As a mother, I was shocked to find out that my nine-year-old daughter could walk into a convenience store and buy an e-cigarette,” she said.

After a one-year-old in New York state died from ingesting the e-liquid, Multnomah County decided to take action. Four months later, the Board passed a regulation banning the sale of products to kids  and the use of those products by kids.

And last month Governor Kate Brown signed statewide policy that made the local legislation a statewide law.

Protecting kids also means supporting parents, Kafoury said. And that’s why the Board will continue supporting the Healthy Birth Initiative, a program for African American residents.

“This community of women faces higher rates of infant mortality and low birth rate,” she said. “By working to improve the health of mothers, we can improve the health of children from birth.”

Kafoury is also proposing an expansion of its Schools Uniting Neighborhoods (SUN) program, in which it partners with schools and community groups to make sure kids have what they need to succeed in school, such as meals and a safe place to hang out after class.

In addition to new SUN schools in Parkrose, Gresham and Reynolds school districts, the county is investing in more tools to serve children affected by trauma, she said. And there’s more money for culturally-specific school-based mental health services to better serve Latino and African American youth.

To support at-risk teens during summer months, the county is doubling its funding of SummerWorks internship program. The program targets kids involved with gangs, or who struggle with English, those whose families receive food and housing assistance and those at risk of dropping out of school.

“All of these policies are about getting kids on the right path,” she said. “Investments early in life can keep our kids in school and out of trouble.”

When kid lands in jail or juvenile detention, Kafoury said, it’s rarely the first time they got in trouble.

“What if we had reached out to that child and his family at the first sign of trouble?” she asked. Instead, she’s proposed funding a new juvenile justice diversion program to reach youth at the first sign of trouble.

Narrowing the divide

A lot of what we talked about today is basic fairness, ensuring that we’re a community where everyone has a chance,” she said.

But that’s not the reality, she said. Rates of sickness are higher for people of color. Life expectancy is lower. And, she said, “if we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we’ll continue the status quo.”

That’s why Kafoury is proposing a 12 percent increase to programs that reduce those disparities. She wants to expand culturally-specific senior lunch programs, train more community health workers from East African immigrant communities and invest in the Future Generations Collaborative to support either births for Native American women.

She said disparities aren’t always so glaring as in homicide or poverty rates. Sometimes they’re in the very air we breath.

“I’m proposing bold action to reduce diesel emissions,” she said. “Adults breathing diesel over time face greater risks of cancer, heart disease and stroke. And we find concentrations of diesel emissions about 2-to-3 times higher where people of color live.”

Statistics about poverty. Measures that show glaring inequality. Stories about folks who don’t get a fair shake. These conversations make us uncomfortable, she said.

But Kafoury challenged the community - just as she challenges her staff - to get used to it.

“Have the courage to re-examine how we do things,” she said. “When challenged, our community will respond. And we will choose to become more inclusive, more caring and more fair.”