The Metro Council voted Thursday to OK a groundbreaking plan to use tourism tax dollars to fund support services for people experiencing homelessness.
The plan would, by 2023, set aside $5.25 million per year “to fund services and programs for people experiencing homelessness, or who are at risk of becoming homeless, and services and programs addressing the community livability and safety concerns associated with homelessness.”
The Portland City Council is set to vote on the plan next week, but expressed support for the plan at a meeting on Wednesday. The Multnomah County Commission has not yet scheduled a vote on the plan.
Visitors to Multnomah County pay a 2.5 percent tax on rooms and car rentals to fund a Visitor Facilities Trust Account, which supports visitor facilities in Portland, such as the Oregon Convention Center, Portland’5 Centers for the Arts and the Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Some portion also pays for the early 2000s expansion of Providence Park.
The rest of the 13.3 percent room tax and 17 percent car rental tax supports tourism promotion and Portland’s and Multnomah County’s general funds.
Tourism has been booming in Portland in the past few years. In 2011, visitors to Multnomah County paid $11.6 million in room taxes; by 2017, that number had risen to $16.8 million.
But simultaneous to that boom has been a surge in people forced to live on the streets because of rising housing costs. Portland approved a $258 million affordable housing bond in 2016, and Metro voters signed off on a $653 million housing bond last month.
Those measures will only address part of the region’s affordable housing crisis, and don’t have money built in for support services to help people stay in housing once they get it.
Jeff Miller, CEO of Travel Portland, said addressing livability for people experiencing homelessness is a priority for the city’s tourism industry.
“One of the 10 points in our recently-approved master plan is for us to be actively engaged in making a difference in vulnerable communities and we are actively involved in tha” Miller said.
The set-aside for livability and safety support services will ramp up to $5.25 million over several years, and grow with inflation beyond the 2022-23 fiscal year. That money had previously been going to reserve funds to use in the event of a shortfall. Those reserve funds had $18.8 million as of 2016.
In the event of a tourism downturn, the livability fund, and other funds, could see cuts. The top priority for the fund is to pay down already-authorized bonds for construction at the convention center, Providence Park and newly-authorized bonds for the Veterans Memorial Coliseum and Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.
After that, leaders from Multnomah County, Portland and Metro would have to decide how to address any funding shortfall.
Metro officials said they modeled a severe recession off of the tourism downturn that followed the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, and found that the reserves would be spent and some of the lower-priority allocations would be shortfunded. A milder recession, typical of economic cycles of the 20th century, would not as significantly impact the fund.
That satisfied Metro Councilor Kathryn Harrington.
“Yes there are risks. There are risks in everything we do. But I think this is a pretty good system,” Harrington said.
In his closing remarks Thursday, Metro Council President Tom Hughes said he expects the Portland City Council to approve the deal Wednesday, and its then up to the county to decide if it wants the $60 million to support services for people experiencing homelessness.
“The most important single consequence of not passing this measure is that $60 million currently scheduled to go into the program to pair with the $653 million Metro just got the voters to approve will go towards providing homeless services in the region,” Hughes said. “Without this agreement that doesn’t go forward.”