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Oregon’s Gov. Tina Kotek opens up about the state’s housing crisis

Homelessness nearly lost her the election. Now she’s trying to fix it.

Oregon Governor Tina Kotek.
Mathieu Lewis-Rolland/Getty Images
Rachel M. Cohen is a senior reporter for Vox covering social policy. She focuses on housing, schools, labor, criminal justice, and abortion rights, and has been reporting on these issues for more than a decade.

The challenges of homelessness and a lack of affordable housing are particularly acute in Oregon.

The state has seen a 63 percent increase in unsheltered homelessness over the last six years. While roughly 18,000 people are currently unhoused in the state, there are only about 5,200 year-round shelter beds to serve them. One cause of homelessness nationwide is that, for years, the US has been building fewer homes than necessary to house a growing population. Oregon has among the largest housing supply gaps: statewide, 140,000 housing units are needed, and, without serious action, there’s a projected shortage of 443,556 units in the next 20 years.

Voters, in turn, have grown upset. Frustrations around homelessness played a pivotal role in the 2022 election. Tina Kotek, a Democrat who had served as Oregon’s House speaker for the previous nine years, eked out a win in the gubernatorial election, but her tight margins (she earned 47 percent in a three-way race) spoke volumes in a state that’s typically safely blue.

Kotek, in turn, has made housing and homelessness among her top priorities in her first six months in office — issues that leaders don’t often stake their capital on.

Since taking office, she has declared a state of emergency on homelessness, directed state agencies to prioritize reducing unsheltered homelessness, and established a statewide housing production target of 36,000 new homes per year. She also lobbied for and signed a $200 million legislative package to help address Oregon’s housing and homelessness crisis.

Her plans though, hinge on other community leaders taking action, and it’s too soon to say whether her ideas and policy prescriptions will succeed.

I talked with Gov. Kotek about making housing policy the center of her agenda, about dealing with NIMBYs, and lessons other states might learn from Oregon. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rachel Cohen

Oregon’s governorship almost flipped red last year for the first time in more than three decades, and voter surveys indicate frustration with homelessness was one of the top reasons why. What has changed about homelessness, in your view, to make it rise to become a such salient political issue?

Gov. Tina Kotek

That’s a great question because I’ve been doing public policy for 20+ years and the public has long perceived housing and homelessness as this second-tier issue. The change is really related to the pandemic, when we had to move people out of shelters because you couldn’t have the crowding. And people came out on the streets in tents, and then were there for more than two years. So in that sense, the most extreme example of our housing crisis — experiencing unsheltered homelessness— is just in everybody’s face now on a daily basis in a way that we didn’t have before.

You have both an empathy, because people don’t want to see folks living like that, and a frustration, because they want their communities back to what they were, which includes not having tents on the streets.

Rachel Cohen

Beyond Covid-19, what do you see as the root cause of Oregon’s high levels of unsheltered homelessness?

Gov. Kotek

From the housing side of this, I definitely go back to the Great Recession, when housing construction literally stopped. But people continued to move to Oregon. So we’ve been behind with housing construction and keeping up with the influx of folks going on 15 years now. This has really driven the affordability issues. And what had been getting built since the Great Recession was very high-end housing, not what I would call workforce or affordable housing.

Then for homelessness, you have a lot of different populations who are out there who’ve lost their housing. And because they’re on the street they start to develop significant illnesses. Maybe you started your unsheltered homelessness because you lost your job, and you’re traumatized by this experience. So you’re starting to develop a mental health issue, you’re probably medicating with a substance to stay awake — for example, meth. Then you develop a substance issue. It’s this accumulation of illness that comes with being on the street that has led to the level of chronic unsheltered homelessness. It’s not the start of the issue, but the length of the issue that we’re now dealing with, and the depth of the illness on the street because of that.

Rachel Cohen

How do you plan to measure the success of your housing initiatives over time?

Gov. Kotek

We’ve been very specific that by the end of the calendar year, we want to have a minimum of 600 new shelter beds, 1,200 people rehoused, and a minimum of 8,750 people being supported through rental assistance that we’re preventing from becoming homeless.

So the key there is making sure that the problem doesn’t get any worse. And we wanted to be very clear with local communities: You get state money based on a plan to hit your portion of that target. The public really needs us to show that the money is connected to outcomes.

Rachel Cohen

Elected officials in other states have been reticent to tackle housing and homelessness. What’s your case for why they should anyway?

Gov. Kotek

It’s certainly daunting, right? It’s easier to pick something less complex when you’re in elected office. But what I like to tell people is that housing is the core problem. If you don’t have stable housing, you’re going to be unhealthy, and those are health care costs. If you’re trying to recruit people to your community and there’s literally no workforce housing, that’s an economic issue. It’s a safety issue because when people are stable in their housing it reduces crime and disruption. And it matters for educational outcomes — when a child moves school districts within the same year, they fall months behind.

I think things are particularly severe in Oregon for a whole variety of reasons, but everybody has the same issue. We just haven’t built enough housing. Every governor has to take up housing, you cannot ignore it.

Rachel Cohen

How do you deal with NIMBYism in Oregon? There’s also a lot of cynicism about the power of individuals to block needed housing production.

Gov. Kotek

There’s a lot of fear when people see that their world is changing. In the 2019 legislative session, we had House Bill 2001, which was the “middle housing” bill. It was a reset of how we approached what it means to have a home, meaning they don’t have to be big apartments or single-family housing. And there was a lot of fear from people that we were going to change the aesthetics, the feel, the nature of their neighborhoods. And I said, “No, we’re going to make them more livable so people can stay in the communities they want. So they can have the ADU or the duplex or the townhome that in some places was actually not allowed to be built.” There was pushback, and now everyone’s accepting it because they understand that we have to have different types of housing options.

I always go back to personal stories with folks. They tend to help people understand that we can all have prosperity if we just let go of our fears that change is going to hurt us. And it takes a lot of conversations to do that.

I think you also have to involve the people who are doing the work early on. For example, my Housing Production Advisory Council — it would have been easier if I said, “This is the stuff we’re going to do.” But I wanted to make sure that the folks who are doing the work have buy-in to the solutions, and are willing to push for those solutions. It takes longer, but you’re going to have more success when everyone’s bought in.

Rachel Cohen

I recently wrote about how the Ninth Circuit’s Martin v. Boise decision — which says people can’t be punished for sleeping outside on public property if there are no alternatives available — is shaping cities’ response to tent encampments.

Oregon is no exception, and earlier this year I know you raised concerns that Portland’s plan for unsheltered homelessness might amount to just shuffling people around. I wanted to ask you about some of the proposed solutions — like sanctioned encampment sites. What do you think about these as interim measures, and the fact that some advocates worry they’ll become more permanent fixtures?

Gov. Kotek

We have to be okay with some level of transitional shelter until we build more housing.

After the Boise decision, I helped pass legislation here to be very clear with our local governments of what they needed to do to be in compliance with that court ruling. It’s not enough to say you can’t criminalize people who are living outside, you have to also provide them a pathway to permanent housing.

And it’s also important to set some parameters about where people can be. I think it’s appropriate to have time, place, and manner guidelines for where people can camp, particularly in places that are very unsafe, like on the sides of highways and things like that.

My frustration has been that while that’s something cities have to do, they also have to provide the resources. In Portland, when their daytime camping ban takes effect in July, they have to be serious about providing more daytime shelters for people who can no longer camp on the streets during 8 am to 8 pm. We can do both, we just have to plan for it.

I’ve learned a lot in this process by listening to people who were actually on the streets. We need to lean into new ideas like Project Turnkey, which enables someone experiencing homelessness to walk into a converted hotel or motel, where they can then have a room with a locked door, services on site. And little villages, where people have their pod and their safety but they’re also living in community. Those things take a bit longer to set up but they are much more effective than what we’ve done in the past, where you just say here’s a big building with a bunch of beds in it. And you wonder why people don’t want to do that.

Rachel Cohen

I want to turn back to the 2019 “middle housing” law you helped pass, which ordered larger cities and the Portland metro area to legalize duplexes on all residential lots, and fourplexes, triplexes, townhomes, and cottage clusters on more than half of lots.

This was the first law of its kind in the nation, and as the Sightline Institute put it, “proved that it’s possible for state legislatures to take groundbreaking action against local bans on lower-cost housing types.”

You are credited with playing a major role in getting the bill passed, and on a bipartisan basis. Can you talk about any lessons you learned from that?

Gov. Kotek

My general take from the beginning was that legalizing these housing types needed to be statewide and it’s important for everybody to do it. I think other states have approached it as something you can opt into, or just for certain locales, and I really recommend against that.

The success came from building the right coalition of folks. Everyone from the land-use folks, to AARP, the real estate community, the development community, the climate activists. That level of support helped us push back on the NIMBYs.

Rachel Cohen

I want to zoom out for the last question. I’ve been writing about housing and homelessness for a long time, and it’s clear that many people see these issues as separate. I know your administration sees housing and homelessness as connected, and I wondered, why do you think there is this disconnect in people’s minds? And how do we fight that misperception?

Gov. Kotek

I think it’s important for folks who work on these issues to not get rigid in either space. You will have some advocates who work for the unsheltered who think it’s all about housing — like if we just had more housing, then everything would be fine. That’s missing the point of the acuity of the individuals on the streets.

And then you go to the other extreme where people say, “We don’t have a housing supply problem, this is a personal responsibility issue. These are folks who are just on drugs, they have mental health issues.” And that perspective — which puts the blame on them — is also wrong. Because even if those folks got all the resources they need to be healthy today, there aren’t enough places for them to live.

We had an issue recently out in Clackamas County, which is one of our metro area counties, where they had approved a hotel to convert to a homeless shelter. I was told this was one of the best assets they had ever seen for one of these conversions, it was in a good location, good shape. And then around two weeks later they reversed approval for it because they thought it didn’t focus enough on people’s mental health and drug addiction issues. This is very short-sighted.

So I like to tell people, both are true. It’s true there are individuals who have significant health issues that are helping to keep them on the streets, and it’s true they have nowhere to live. So for us, it’s the short term of helping people get into transitional shelter, continue to get people rehoused, and keep them there. We’re also trying to say we have to provide some level of ongoing rent assistance for a time, so people can stay stable and still get services. Nothing is worse than spending money and having someone come back on the streets. It’s bad for them. It’s not cost-effective.

My message to everyone is, see the entire spectrum of the issue. Deal with the complexities and have a short-term and a long-term plan. But we have to help people right now who are suffering. So every day, it’s just like, gotta do both. You gotta do it all and they are interrelated.

Correction, June 15, 5:30 pm: A previous version of this story said Oregon’s goal for the minimum number of people supported by rental assistance was 3,600. After publication, the Oregon governor’s office amended that number to 8,750.

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