Andrea Bell took the reins of the Oregon Housing and Community Services agency during a time of upheaval: The agency was in the process of rolling out its pandemic emergency rental assistance program with mixed results.

While the program provided $302 million in assistance to about 60,000 households, it was beset by reports of delayed or misappropriated funds, and tenants often waited weeks without an update on their application.

Bell, previously the agency’s director of housing stabilization, was named acting State Department director and then won the job permanently, after former leader Margaret Salazar left for a government job. federal. Bell had previously worked as a housing administrator with the Arizona Medicaid program, and she worked at a homeless shelter early in her career.

As the housing department shifts from responding to the effects of the pandemic to addressing housing instability more broadly, Bell spoke to The Oregonian/OregonLive about his vision for the agency and how his experience in social work, health administration and housing will inform his leadership. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How have your experiences framed your approach to running the Oregon Housing Agency?

A: I grew up in a working class family in the Dominican Republic. My grandfather worked on a farm. I remember, from the age of 6 or 7, certain conversations around my grandfather’s dream of affordable housing. This has always been one of our family’s lifelong ambitions. It ended up being one of the most formative experiences for me as a leader.

Working in the Medicaid system has really elevated the alignment of health and housing on a system level for me. To understand the short, medium and long term solutions, we need to have a comprehensive understanding of health and that we have integrated approaches.

Q: When you took over from OHCS, the agency was distributing rent relief funds. Do you think this program was a success overall? How could the agency have avoided problems such as slow distribution of funds or logistical errors?

A: This program has been transformative for our agency on many levels. It was born out of the conditions and circumstances of the economic fallout from the pandemic. Historically, OHCS does not provide direct services, but instead works through grants and connects with community partners. This program required something different, and it challenged our operations in terms of adapting to this size.

At the start of this program, we recruited approximately 50 additional people to the OHCS team to support this administration, and at its peak, the rental assistance program had over 300 people supporting it.

I even think it’s important to be able to have a centralized system to quickly diagnose what’s working well and where we need to pivot. But that we would need 300 people to support the administration of this organization was something we hadn’t anticipated.

I think it’s important to note that the need is still there. And this is just a reminder of how we must continue to seek long-term, affordable housing solutions.

Q: What do you see as the role of the agency?

A: Oregon’s housing finance agency is actually quite unique in that it invests in affordable housing and preserves pathways to homeownership, housing stabilization, and homeless services.

But we also have a whole branch of community services. This includes homeless services and reduced energy loads. Many of the same people in Oregon who are burdened with rent are also burdened with energy.

Over the past two years, we’ve invested nearly $43 million in shelter capacity and street outreach, and a lot of that work has been really informed by the community. As we look ahead to the next two years, we are asking for $800 million (from the Legislative Assembly) in housing investments, which is bold, bold and appropriate.

Q: What are your priorities for long-term solutions to Oregon’s housing needs?

A: My belief is that the lens through which we do our work is that every person in this state deserves safe and affordable housing in the community of their choice.

We presented our five-year strategic plan with really aggressive but achievable goals. For example, we decided to increase the permanent supportive housing pipeline by 1,000. We are at nearly 990 permanent supportive housing units across the state. (Permanent supportive housing combines services with affordable housing to help people who have been chronically homeless obtain stable housing and live independently.)

We have decided to increase the affordable rental housing pipeline by 25,000 units. And we have over 19,000 affordable rental units.

We must also continue to invest in preserving affordable housing and investing in down payment assistance and home ownership. And we must continue to center racial justice and equity.

Q: How do you focus on racial justice?

A: This work requires first recognizing that historically, government has not always centered racial justice. We cannot be in conversation with communities if we are not willing to recognize these realities.

I want to bring up two or three things that are really important to us.

First, we continued to hear from communities, culturally specific entities, Black people, Indigenous people, and people from people of color-led agencies, regarding the continued investments needed.

And we need to make sure that we invest in local initiatives. In addition to needing more housing in all shapes, sizes and shapes, we also need to care about where housing is built, the environment in which it is built.

— Jayati Ramakrishnan