By Joanne Zuhl, Staff writer
Oregon’s Housing and Community Services department is
arguably not the most glamorous in state government. But it’s definitely an eye
catcher: 49 separate programs and 64 funding sources, with myriad compliance
and reporting systems that, in essence, are driving the state’s policies around
poverty and housing.
That’s what it looked like when Portland’s Margaret Van
Vliet took the helm last year. Fresh from helping carve out the new Portland Housing
Bureau, Van Vliet was handpicked by Gov. John Kitzhaber to craft a similar
reorganization with the state agency.
By February, the state Legislature is expected to cut the
ribbon on a totally revamped, and most likely smaller, housing agency. OHCS is
a little bit the canary in the coal mine in that regard, with a slew of other
state agencies expected to face the same reinvention in this new economic
normal and Kitzhaber’s “structured devolution.”
More than two decades ago, when the OHCS was crafted as a
consolidation of programs, there was money to be made in housing. The agency
grew plump with flexible loan revenues that were redistributed to an
ever-widening array of services to address an ever-widening gap in economics.
Today, the agency is responsible for helping a diverse population spanning more
than a half a million Oregonians living in poverty, about 30 percent of them
children, and approximately 23,000 people experiencing homelessness. It’s also
facing smaller revenues than it has in years, and there’s no rosy outlook in
Van Vliet spoke with Street Roots about what lies ahead for
the state’s agenda on housing and homelessness, emphasizing that this isn’t
about righting a bureaucratic wrong, but finding new ways to do more with the inevitable
Joanne Zuhl: How would you describe the
state’s current housing agenda?
Margaret Van Vliet: Disparate, disconnected and
lots of well-intentioned people running isolated programs, but it’s all pretty
disconnected. It doesn’t add up to an over arching housing policy. I have eight
statutorily named advisory bodies. It kind of depends on what room you’re in
and what bucket of money you’re talking about, what your “policy agenda” is.
So, in some corners it’s about energy efficiency and healthy housing, in others
it’s about safe housing for farm workers and their families, and the list goes
I think that’s both our problem and our opportunity. Let’s
get crisp about what a statewide housing policy agenda would look like.
J.Z.: There is a lot of speculation on
how far this will go. Is this a restructuring or a dismantling?
M.V.V.: I think it could be either. There
isn’t a secret plan. The emphasis is on rethinking the service delivery-model,
so that we can aim at better policy outcomes. Unlike city government, we cannot
be as nimble. And the communities across Oregon are so diverse. Trying to dictate
how a dollar gets spent, how you ought to report on the data, who is the
priority population and how many bedrooms should they have — we’re not
particularly good at that in Salem, so there is a real desire to think much
more strategically about the state’s role, about over arching policy agendas,
and drive toward a service-delivery model that gives more control to local
governments and local nonprofits, where they’re able to take that up and really
do something with it. We don’t want to burden small communities, but where
there are places that can take it up, we need to aim at giving more deference
to the local governments and nonprofits.
J.Z.: Wasn’t the original idea that
they are all connected when it comes to housing issues, so consolidation made
sense? Is this the other side of the same coin in the argument?
M.V.V.: I suppose you could say that. At the
core of it I think there is an understanding that any kind of affordable
housing is helpful because there is such huge need really everywhere in the state.
We operated in such a silo and have for many years, without regard to what are
the other big systems in state government. We were just carrying our own flag
and preaching to our own choir.
Let’s elevate it. Let’s get everyone at a higher elevation and
look at how important housing is and how severe the shortage is everywhere you
turn. Now let’s have a conversation about leveraging, say, the child welfare
system and decide that family reunification is a high priority. What would that
mean about how I’d allow locals to spend state housing dollars to stabilize
families and community?
J.Z.: It’s going from the
micromanagement to macro issues —— health care, family health, stability.
You’re aligning yourself with the bigger issues.
M.V.V.: We’re spending a lot of time talking
about public safety, health and education, and those systems have to get
transformed. Housing is fundamental to each of those. So I want to hitch my
wagon to that long-term agenda and elevate the conversation, instead of just
keeping our eye on the widgets at the ground level.
J.Z.: Where are local communities going
to have more control? At a state level
you must be seeing more issues that various communities need to address.
M.V.V.: Part of this is for the state to have a
more nuanced understanding of local needs, but really to empower those local
communities to do some of their own work in a priority setting. They all want
jobs and economic development, and a lot of them are coming to housing because
they realize they can’t attract big employers, because they don’t have good
We are totally pass-through (on funding). We don’t do any
direct service. What if the money didn’t have to stop in Salem and have a bunch
of compliance and grant administration work and data analysis work, and the
role of the state agency could be very minimal and basically pass more dollars
through at the local level? Wouldn’t that be interesting?
Gov. Kitzhaber calls it structured devolution. There’s a
corollary with the coordinated care organizations (CCOs – the new local-focused
Medicaid delivery system). The state government is there to help facilitate,
not to be big brother, cop — know-it-all.
J.Z.: You mentioned coordinated care
organizations. Some of them are looking at incorporating housing into their
health care model. Is that on your agenda as well?
M.V.V.: Absolutely. In some sense this is
happening organically. In Douglas County, we know the CCO has very much woken
up to the fact that they can do all this (health care work), but half the
people they release from the hospital will go back and live under a bridge, or
the elderly woman goes back to live in the rundown trailer, and that’s not
helpful to their health outcomes.
So people are coming to it organically, which is terrific.
We have to evolve and devolve over time, and get Salem out of the business of
being the know-it-all.
J.Z.: There’s a financial imperative to
this call for change at OHCS. How is the agency going to make itself
financially sustainable in the years ahead?
M.V.V.: If we were doing a big look, a big
reorganization, we could do the classic — cut the budget, cut staff and reduce
But something’s going to give. I’ve done this more than 20
years, let’s not just take the path we know how to do, which is to downsize the
agency. But let’s instead be very thoughtful with this governor, in this
moment, with an increased understanding of the housing situation and
challenges. Let’s really think deeply about what we are doing with these
dollars. Where can we get out of the way so the maximum of those dollars can
flow to low-income people?
J.Z.: What are these changes going to
mean for people on the ground?
M.V.V.: My hope, and the reason to do this, is
we have more resources — period — to help low-income people. That we spend less
on my workers, the employees. I love them, but we need to shrink the number of
people in Salem so we can spend more dollars on low-income Oregonians, the way
it was intended.
And I also hope that access is easier, that when a low-income
person walks through the door of one of the agencies, whether they’re coming in
for a food box or need help paying a bill during the winter, that nonprofits
are prepared to address what this person needs. Sure, they need a food box, but
what is their housing situation? When the system is really aligned at the local
level, people have much easier access to what they’re entitled to, and the
resources that can move them back into prosperity and out of poverty.
J.Z.: Are local governments going to
see fewer dollars, on top of the sequestration cuts to federal housing and
M.V.V.: Certainly to the extent that we’re
passing through federal dollars, those dollars will get shaved back. And to
that extent, fewer dollars will be on the ground in communities. So yes,
resources are getting cut. We have limited dollars and they aren’t going up in
the foreseeable future. It’s all the more important that at the state and local
level we’re more crisp about our priorities, helping people in poverty both
with emergency/safety net services, but also linking people to a pathway to
prosperity. And that sounds very cliché but it’s real. Housing is a bedrock
piece of economic self-sufficiency. ...We have to make sure our systems talk to
each other, that there’s a way to connect them to other support so they can get
out of poverty. Our systems don’t aim people in a systematic or long term way
to getting them back out of poverty. The governor talks a lot about this. We
can’t keep putting Band-Aids on the system and keep giving utility bill
assistance, more food stamps, more emergency housing assistance.
J.Z.: After two decades working in the
affordable housing industry, including finance and development and government
management. Are there goals you have personally on how you would like to see
the state address housing?
M.V.V.: It is personal. I’ve invested my whole
career in questions of housing. And what I just know in my core is if we make
decisions in isolation, than we’re not really helping people who are
experiencing poverty in the way that we should. I just think the system is
crying out for a different way to make decisions and spend the limited
resources so that we can help more people The housing crisis is getting worse.
You see it in Portland. It’s everywhere. We’re not going to get more money. So
how can we help more people and move to prosperity? How can we help them get
there and break the generational cycles of poverty that we know exist out
Government is a tool, and it sort of gets in the way of
communities and local experts doing what they know how to do best. I think we
can do better.