Portland Makes Progress Deploying Emergency Housing Vouchers

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden is pleased to see results after a very slow first year, but he wants more.

As temperatures soar, Multnomah County officials are turning to emergency measures to avert the discomfort and deaths that have accompanied previous heat events.

One standard means of protecting people from the elements that’s working better: the deployment of federal emergency housing vouchers that U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley (both D-Ore.) secured for their state last year.

The largest chunk of those vouchers, 476 of the 1,582 allocated to Oregon, are in the hands of Home Forward and its partner, the Multnomah County Joint Office of Homeless Services.

For much of past year, as WW has reported, the vouchers have gone unused, even as thousands of local residents sleep outside.

But federal figures now show that 40.1% of the vouchers have been used to secure new apartments. That’s a big leap from mid-May, when Home Forward had used just under 16% of its vouchers. The agency now stands slightly above the national average of 38.6% of vouchers in use. (Home Forward’s figures show 42% of its vouchers have yielded leases. The agency says the federal database compiled by the Department of Housing and Urban Development lags slightly behind local figures.)

“We are very pleased at our continued progress with emergency housing vouchers,” says Home Forward’s deputy executive director, Ian Davie.

Davie says that in addition to the 199 Portlanders who have found homes with the emergency vouchers, Home Forward has issued about 200 more vouchers to individuals who are now in the process of trying to secure a home.

Between the two categories—actual leases and vouchers issued but not yet used—Davie says Home Forward has put nearly 85% of its vouchers to work.

Denis Theriault of Joint Office of Homeless Services says the improvement in the number of people using the emergency vouchers is a refection of a stressed system catching up.

“These vouchers were just one part of a surge in new housing resources—including Supportive Housing Services funds and COVID rent assistance—for our community and our social services providers,” Theriault says. “It took time to ramp up staffing for these new funds and establish the right foundation for deploying them and supporting our placement teams and providers.”

The HUD database shows that Home Forward has indeed made strides but still lags behind peer cities such as San Diego (75.8%) and Seattle (52.8%) and well behind the Oregon average (59.8%, including Portland) in terms of residents actually housed with the emergency vouchers.

Things could also be worse: In Los Angeles, as the LA Times reported today, the utilization rate for the emergency vouchers is 5.9%.

Wyden wants Home Forward to push even harder to get Portlanders holding vouchers into housing.

“While Sen. Wyden is glad of any progress during this housing crisis—magnified even more during this week’s scorching weather—to help people get a roof overhead, he knows full well the ultimate goal is to get all these vouchers distributed to all Oregonians who need them,” says Wyden spokesman Hank Stern.

“By that measure, Portland still has a long ways to go, and his staff is checking regularly with local officials to ensure they act as fast as possible to fully achieve the objective.”