New Figures Show Multnomah County Still Isn’t Using the Homeless Services Tax Money Metro Covets

Metro wants to claw back some of the soaring tax revenues to build more affordable housing.

PARKED: Roadside camping in a 2022 winter storm. (Blake Benard)

In a Feb. 20 work session, all five Multnomah County commissioners took umbrage at the Metro Council’s desire to divert some of a $357 million homeless services tax to build more affordable housing.

Even the two commissioners who have been most critical of Multnomah County’s fumbling efforts to reduce homelessness didn’t think much of cutting their own budget. Commissioner Julia Brim-Edwards called the idea a “cash grab,” while Commissioner Sharon Meieran said it should be a “nonstarter.”

The commissioners took that position, however, less than a week after county number-crunchers filed a new report showing the county-run Joint Office of Homeless Services’ inability to spend the dollars Metro covets.

Through the first six months of the 2023-24 fiscal year (July through December), the report revealed, Multnomah County spent just 22% of the amount it had budgeted for the entire year from the homeless services tax.

And that number is significantly inflated. A breakdown of the actual spending shows that $10 million of the $41 million that the Joint Office of Homeless Services spent came by writing a one-time check to the United Way of the Columbia-Willamette so the nonprofit could dole out capacity-building grants to various organizations, which in turn hope to provide direct services to people who are homeless. In other words, a quarter of the money the Joint Office spent will be used in the future by nonprofits—to hire more people or build out their computer systems—but it didn’t provide direct services to people sleeping on the streets or in their cars.

Multnomah County’s spending of homeless tax dollars lagged slightly behind Clackamas County, which spent 25% of its budget through the first half of the year, and way behind Washington County, which spent 40% of its budget. (To be fair, Multnomah County warned Metro last year not to expect much—it set a goal of spending 75% of its 2023-24 budget.)

As WW reported throughout 2023, Multnomah County has never come close to spending its budget on homeless services since voters approved the Metro tax in 2020. That’s even after the county spent six months formulating an implementation plan after the tax passed.

County officials have explained the underspending a couple of different ways: They don’t pay nonprofit service providers enough to attract and retain staff. They are also contending with an unexpected windfall: The tax has consistently yielded far more than economists projected, and that bonanza is expected to continue.

All of that led Metro to float an idea in January: What if the three counties allowed the regional government to divert some of the tax revenues to build more affordable housing? The $652.8 million affordable housing bond Metro passed in 2018 is fully committed (and yielded far more new apartments than forecast), but a vast need for new housing remains.

Homeless Tax Revenues Soar (Metro)

Meieran and Brim-Edwards are frustrated with the Joint Office but don’t think that’s sufficient reason to change course.

“I expect the Joint Office to spend the funds the county commission has allocated for them and to use those resources to make a measurable difference in addressing homelessness,” Brim-Edwards says. “If they cannot, the chair should consider which county departments and contractors are charged with the delivery of services and hold them accountable.” Brim-Edwards adds that the county is now shifting more aggressively to funding shelters and transitional housing, a move she expects will make a demonstrable difference.

Meieran says the county needs to focus on what voters asked it to do—effectively provide services to people who are chronically homeless.

“Multnomah County’s failure to effectively deploy the supportive housing services funds doesn’t mean that the need for services doesn’t exist,” Meieran says. “Tragically, the need has never been greater. We need a forensic audit and overhaul of Multnomah County’s use of SHS funds, not redirect funds to a use that was not envisioned by voters when they passed the measure.”

The panel Metro is convening to discuss scooping some of the supportive housing services tax will hold its first meeting March 1. Metro hopes to put the idea in front of voters in November.

Updated March 5 with comments from Dan Field, the director of the Joint Office of Homeless Services:

Field took issue with WW’s characterization of the $10 million check to the United Way.

“It’s misleading to say the spending number is inflated because of the capacity-building grants, which directly address the capacity and staffing challenges our providers have long made clear is the top hurdle they face in achieving SHS goals,” Field said. “We fully expect these funds to have a direct and tangible impact on employee recruitment and retention across our housing and homeless services continuum.”

Field also offered an explanation for why the county’s spending appears low:

“What’s actually distorting percentages is the large amount of unanticipated revenue that’s been sent to all three counties this year — an opportunity for us to focus on clear community priorities around shelter expansion, recovery housing, and stronger partnerships with the City of Portland’s TASS program and organizations like Bybee Lakes,” Field said. “We will keep pushing, but it’s encouraging that our trajectory is on a clear upswing. We’ve already spent more in the first half of this year than we spent in three quarters last year, and that pace will continue in the second half of this year.”

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