By Taylor W. Anderson

The Bulletin

Bills in Salem — Senate Bill 516 and House Bill 2959 would require that 75 percent of the money collected by counties for a state fund for various affordable housing efforts is sent back to the county the money comes from.

Sponsors: Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend; Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend; Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver

History: The Legislature in 2009 created a $15 fee to go to a fund for various affordable housing projects. It later increased the fee to $20 to also support projects for veterans. Central Oregon lawmakers say Deschutes County and Bend, which has a near-zero rental vacancy rate, aren’t getting their fair share back from the program.

What’s next: House Bill 2959 scheduled for hearing Wednesday.

Online: Read the bill at https://olis.leg.state.or.us.

SALEM — The Bend rental market is so tight that housing officials estimate that in recent months, there are about 20 rentals on the market or fewer at any given time.

“If you’re coming into town looking for a place to live, you’re going to have nine to 10 places to choose from,” said Jim Long, Bend’s affordable housing manager.

That’s partly why Bend lawmakers say they’re pushing twin bills in the House and Senate that would bring more money generated from a $20 recording fee back to Deschutes County that could help with affordable housing projects.

The bills have a slim chance at passing, their sponsors say. But they’re creating a conversation in Salem about Central Oregon’s affordable housing crisis that will likely be addressed even if the bills don’t pass.

Senate Bill 516 and House Bill 2959 would require the Oregon Housing and Community Services Department to return the revenue from the $20 fee to the county that generated the money.

They seek to address what Central Oregon lawmakers and housing officials say is a complicated system of disbursing money for affordable housing that hasn’t been fairly given out statewide in recent years.

“It appears at this moment that the bill was successful in starting a conversation about equity; whether we did that in bill form or whether that gets worked out through agency grants, I still think that’s beneficial for Central Oregon,” said Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, who sponsored Senate Bill 516.

Legislators created the document recording fee in 2009 to help build a fund that would help with affordable housing projects and homeownership.

The fund has generated nearly $58 million since then, but the department has only spent just over half that. The money that has gone out hasn’t been distributed proportionately across the state, data from the agency handling the money show.

“If you’re putting fees on people and you can’t use the money, then quit putting fees on people for a while or lower the fees,” said Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend. “We don’t want money sitting in accounts not being used.”

Ahead of a hearing on Buehler’s HB 2959 this Wednesday, Buehler planned to send a letter to the department in charge of disbursing the money asking how the money is given out by the board approving grants.

Margaret Van Vliet, director of the Oregon Housing and Community Services Department, told a committee during a hearing the agency admits it hasn’t met the demand for affordable housing help.

“This agency probably hasn’t been as aggressive as we could be in really getting these dollars out the door as quickly as they should be,” Van Vliet said. “I’m very committed to turning that around.”

Van Vliet and the department maintains that funding affordable housing projects is often very complicated, with a patchwork of money coming from state, local, federal and private sources of money. She said the department is refining its processes to make it easier to fund projects.

That’s good news for Oregon groups that are eager for grants, Long said.

“There’s no reason to make it that complicated, at least at that first level where they’re just trying to get funding,” Long said.

Data from Oregon Housing and Community Services show Deschutes County contributed about $4 million but only received about $700,000 since 2009.

The Portland metro area, south central and southeastern counties also put in more than they received back, while every other region was awarded more money from the fees than what they put in.

Other affordable housing groups said the program in place helps spread the relief statewide. If Knopp’s and Buehler’s bills passed, they said, small communities would have a hard time pulling together money for a single project.

— Reporter: 406-589-4347,

tanderson@bendbulletin.com

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