Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer says federal government must join local leaders like Chair Deborah Kafoury in homelessness fight

September 9, 2019

Chair Deborah Kafoury, front-center, speaks alongside Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, from left, Nkenge Harmon-Johnson, Ernesto Fonseca, Michael Buonocore and U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019.
Chair Deborah Kafoury joined U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer this week as he shared a new housing report detailing decades of federal disinvestment and racial discrimination — alongside strategies, policies and investments meant to reverse those ills.

Blumenauer’s report, called “Locked Out: Reversing Federal Housing Failures and Unlocking Opportunity,” lays out a series of policy shifts that would tackle housing affordability and homelessness from all sides.

It calls for historic increases in public housing investments and construction, new federal incentives to encourage state rent caps, and more tax credits to boost the private construction of affordable apartments.

At the same time, the report concludes that rent vouchers should be made be available for anyone who needs them — like a Medicare-style entitlement program — and urges special tax breaks for burdened renters and meaningful enforcement of fair housing laws that have failed to limit discrimination faced by people of color and people with disabilities.

“The federal government needs to get back in the game — or, in some cases, to finally get in the game,” Blumenauer said during a news conference in Portland on Sept. 5 where he thanked local leaders for being “on the front lines” of the fight against homelessness.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, front-center, speaks alongside Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, from left, Nkenge Harmon-Johnson, Ernesto Fonseca, Michael Buonocore and Chair Deborah Kafoury on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019.
Beyond Chair Kafoury, those local leaders included Portland Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, Michael Buonocore of Home Forward, Nkenge Harmon-Johnson of the Urban League of Portland and Ernesto Fonseca of Hacienda Community Development Corporation.

Chair Kafoury praised Blumenauer’s plan as “bold” and “comprehensive,” and said her hope that Washington might finally do its part is “better late than never.” 

She said the County and the City of Portland and other local governments have had to take the lead in the absence of active federal partnership.

On just one night this winter, she said, more than 12,400 people were in housing instead of facing homelessness because of local investments in rent assistance and support services. That number is almost double what it was four years before.

In that same timespan, federal officials in the Trump administration have proposed cutting housing assistance and putting people out onto the streets. 

“When I think of all of the work we’ve done to come together locally — and help thousands of people — night after night — I can’t help but think of how much more we could do,” Kafoury said, “if the federal government hadn’t spent decades standing pat or working against us.”

Nkgenge Harmon-Johnson, president of the Urban League of Portland, speaks at a press event Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019.
Harmon-Johnson said the “federally backed racism” detailed in Blumenauer’s report lingers to this day — the legacy of communities and federal policies that banned federal home loans in neighborhoods home to people of color, denied veterans housing to black Americans and  created segregated public housing.

Without a chance to obtain wealth through property ownership as white Americans have been able to do, people of color still face painful wealth and housing gaps. Those gaps grew larger during the Great Recession, which hit communities of color the hardest.

Blumenauer’s plan would redirect current tax subsidies that favor wealthier Americans buying luxuries like second homes and offer help, instead, to first-time homebuyers living in formerly “redlined” neighborhoods.

“For decades, the federal government created policies that lead to the dearth of opportunity for black homeowners,” Harmon-Johnson said. “We’re not talking about ancient history. We’re not talking about decades-old history. We’re talking about today — and the challenges that federal policy have perpetuated for folks who look like me.” 

Also central to Blumenauer’s plan is a work to plug the torrent of people who fall into homelessness every year, often at a rate that is faster than the number of people local governments can help back into housing. It would pay for legal protections for people facing eviction, offer rental assistance to those in need and boost fair housing enforcement.

“Housing is so much more than a roof over someone’s head. It’s family, friends, community, safety and stability. It’s health care. It’s educational and economic opportunity,” said Eudaly, who’s worked to pass a raft of tenant protections through the Portland City Council.

“And it’s potentially life or death for millions of Americans teetering on the brink. It’s costing us all dearly. We can either bring the best of ourselves — and address this crisis now — or we can continue to pay for generations to come.”

Blumenauer acknowledged the cost of changing course after decades of disinvestment would be steep. 

Commissioner Chloe Eudaly speaks at a press event Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019.
“But the cost of inaction is far greater,” he said. “From increased health care cost to environmental impacts to decreased quality of life.”

Chair Kafoury said she wouldn’t stop doing everything she could locally to address housing affordability and homelessness. Beyond doubling the number of people who are housed out of homelessness in the past for years, the County and the city of Portland have also doubled shelter capacity and invested in dramatically improved shelter spaces.

“Our board has had to dig deep and sacrifice worthy programs. I’ve had to have difficult conversations and tell people no,” she said. “But we’ve never wavered from doing what was right.”

And yet, she said? 

“I am more than ready to live in a country where the federal government is willing to do its part, too.”