Taking the helm of the state’s housing finance agency is a significant undertaking during normal times, but is even more daunting during a global pandemic when Oregonians are facing a severe affordable housing crisis. For Andrea Bell, the new executive director at Oregon Housing and Community Services (OHCS) it’s a unique opportunity to make a positive impact.
“I came to work at OHCS because I believe in the mission of ensuring all Oregonians have a safe, stable place to call home,” said Bell when I sat down with her recently to talk about her new position.
“I could not have imagined the tremendous impact our agency would have throughout the COVID-19 pandemic in supporting tens-of-thousands of families who experienced significant economic hardship to stay housed. Yet we know that even with these unprecedented resources and outreach, too many Oregonians are still struggling to find stable housing that is affordable. Our work is far from over.”
April 1 marked the first day Bell, who joined the agency in 2019 as the Director of Housing Stabilization, began serving as executive director.
Her new job involves coordinating housing resources across the statewide housing continuum. Bell took over temporarily in February after former OHCS Executive Director Margaret Salazar was appointed by the White House as Region 10 director at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The past two years were a time of expansion for the small agency, which grew from 151 employees in 2019 to approximately 253 employees today.
Despite initial operational challenges with administering the COVID-era federal emergency rental assistance program, the agency supported more than 53,000 Oregon households in staying safely and stably housed during the most deadly outbreak in recent history, delivering more than $350 million in rent relief to date. For context, with each household having an average of two people, that is more than the agency has delivered in the past decade combined with a program serving a population nearly double the size of Greenland in less than a year.
The agency also played a key role in the advocacy efforts to successfully secure more than $422 million in federal resources to support survivors in recovering from the devastating 2020 Oregon wildfires. OHCS is working with affected communities to determine the most effective way to deploy federal resources for permanent housing in areas impacted by the disaster.
Challenges like the pandemic and natural disasters have compounded Oregon’s already severe housing affordability crisis, which has made the agency’s day-to-day work even more urgent. OHCS continues to make rapid progress to build more affordable housing with nearly 19,000homes in the pipeline, well on the way to meeting the Statewide Housing Plan goal of 25,000 homes. This is a tripling of the agency’s prior annual production. The agency has also funded 915 out of its goal to finance 1000 Permanent Supportive Housing units—homes where individuals have access to supportive services to help them exit homelessness.
“For too long the conversation about homelessness has been framed as the result of personal failings rather than systemic inequities,” says Bell “Part of the complexity is that many housing challenges are influenced by a wide range of local-level decision-makers, including things like local zoning, sheltering options and building codes. Our agency plays an important role, but it takes action, bold innovation and diverse partnerships to make progress for Oregonians.”
The Oregon State Legislature recently passed a $400 million housing package to make investments in wide-ranging solutions to current challenges in housing affordability and homelessness. But the state’s housing supply is still woefully inadequate to meet the growing need.
The recent Oregon Housing Needs Analysis found that in the next 20 years, Oregon must double our housing production and build about 584,000 new homes.
Bell understands that homelessness is a complex issue that requires immediate, short-term and long-term solutions that get at the root causes of our housing crisis.
“Without adequate housing available, skyrocketing rents and low vacancies mean some families are one sickness or job loss away from experiencing homelessness,” says Bell. “We know communities of color face additional housing burdens as a result of historical inequities, including redlining, restrictive convents and exclusionary zoning policies. OHCS will not be an agency that postures as an agency committed to racial justice and equality without continuous pursuit through action. Words of solidarity are not enough.”
Bell is a humble leader with remarkable skills uniquely suited to meet the current moment.
“I am so impressed by Director Bell, her authenticity, her genuine caring for survivors of wildfires, and her willingness to move beyond silos and form partnerships to ensure an equitable recovery,” says Oregon Department of Human Services Director Fariborz Pakseresht.
With a passion for community building and a background in public health, Bell brings extensive experience working in homeless services and the depth of perspective needed to effectively respond to the housing challenges brought on by the pandemic.
“When Director Bell came to the agency, I was struck by how fired up she was about health and housing,” said Oregon Health Authority Community Engagement Program Manager Dolly England. “She was willing to form partnerships and tear down silos. It’s not often I meet an interdisciplinary leader who can move programs forward holistically to embrace multi-faceted solutions.”
One of Bell’s top priorities is to build partnerships with a wide range of stakeholders, including public, private and nonprofit developers, lenders, services providers, local governments, culturally-specific organizations and other agencies.
“I’m deeply proud of all OHCS has accomplished,” says Bell. “Yet it’s clear that despite remarkable progress there’s a great deal more work ahead. Centering people and hearing directly from the communities we serve is part of our responsibility. I’ve always been a fan of the saying that ‘those closest to the problem are likely to be closest to the solution.’”