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Stalled bill would clear way for more residential mental health treatment

Oregon lawmakers say they want more residential treatment facilities, but a bill intended to make it easier to build them faces uncertainty
The proposed site of Heritage Square, which would have included supportive housing, in downtown Astoria. The city council voted down the project over its cost and concerns from a vocal group of critics. | CITY OF ASTORIA
April 25, 2023

Housing advocates have complained for years that local governments in Oregon throw up barriers to building residential treatment centers, in violation of federal housing law. But a bill intended to remove some of those barriers — and bring Oregon law into federal compliance — has been diverted to the House Rules Committee, rendering its future uncertain.

Key Oregon lawmakers have made building more residential facilities for treatment of mental health or addiction a key priority of the current legislative session. 

While behavioral health advocates closely watch House Bill 2506, its future is now the topic of behind-the-scenes discussions. That’s because the House Housing and Homelessness Committee diverted it to the House Rules Committee — a leadership-dominated committee that is exempt from some bill deadlines.

“It’s an important bill,” state Rep. Maxine Dexter, a Portland Democrat who chairs the housing committee, told The Lund Report. “Having residential care homes is critical to getting access to mental health care in our state.”

State Reps. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, and Gamba, D-Milwaukie, sponsored the legislation. It would modify Oregon’s complex land-use laws so that local governments would have to treat supportive housing projects — which come with wraparound services that include behavioral health treatment — and similar facilities no differently from other residential developments. The bill also allows organizations seeking to build supportive housing projects to collect attorney fees from opponents who make unsuccessful challenges to siting them.

Amy Baker, the executive director of Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare, told The Lund Report that the bill could help projects like one that Astoria City Council dropped last year. 

Heritage Square was a proposed affordable housing development in downtown Astoria that would have included 30 units with supportive services and staff for people with mental health or substance use challenges, said Baker. The council voted down the project over its cost and concerns from a vocal group of critics

Baker called the process around the Astoria development “really, really distasteful.” She said a community member circulated a video online of people in mental health distress to gin up opposition.

“It’s as if people are imagining some kind of zombie movie where there would be all these ... mentally deranged people wandering the streets of downtown, which is exactly the opposite of what this project would accomplish,” one council member said, according to The Astorian newspaper.

“I think that people were scared about having folks with mental health issues living downtown, which is silly ... They’re living downtown now. But they’re living outside.”

“I think that people were scared about having folks with mental health issues living downtown, which is silly,” Baker said. “They’re living downtown now. But they’re living outside.” She said it would be better situation for everyone if they were moved indoors.

Supporters say the bill would mean local governments couldn’t use zoning or conditional use processes, which require government approval, to stymie supportive housing projects. They also say it’ll make it harder for residents to pressure local governments into blocking the kind of supportive housing projects that the state has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into in recent years. 

But Republican lawmakers have raised concerns that the bill will erode local control and put communities in danger. 

“My major concern is that there are too many unintended consequences,” state Rep. Jeff Helfrich, R-Hood River, told The Lund Report in an email. “I worry primarily about the siting of rehabilitation facilities which can include recently released felons, sex offenders, and drug abusers, near schools and community centers where our most vulnerable population — our kids — will be.”

He added that Oregon needs more residential facilities, but the bill doesn’t strike the right balance on safety and local control. 

State Rep. Cyrus Javadi, R-Tillamook, is hoping to work out a deal to address concerns around the bill. He’s asked for an amendment that would allow local governments to require an organization seeking to build a residential treatment facility to comply with staffing and security requirements. 

Javadi told The Lund Report the amendment is intended to make sure that patients who require more supervision are getting it while receiving treatment at one of these facilities. He also sponsored another amendment prohibiting residential treatment homes from housing sex offenders within 1,000 feet of a school or child care facility. 

“We need these residential facilities,” Javadi said. But the Legislature needs to ensure the bill doesn’t have unintended consequences, he added, pointing to how in 2015, a sex offender was housed near a Head Start preschool program until neighbors complained. 

On April 4, the House Housing and Homelessness Committee voted 7-3 to not make a recommendation on whether the bill should be passed and to instead refer it to House Rules.

According to Dexter, negotiations around the bill need more time. Helfrich, the committee’s vice-chair, said lawmakers still had “significant concerns” over the bill that couldn’t be resolved before a legislative deadline that applies to most committees, though he voted against sending it to House Rules, which he saw as a procedural maneuver by Democrats to keep the bill in play.

Nosse told The Lund Report that the bill is alive and he is negotiating amendments to it. He acknowledged that people “get nervous” when residential treatment homes are sited in neighborhoods. 

‘Piece of the puzzle’

Oregon lawmakers have prioritized shoring up the state’s underdeveloped mental and behavioral health system in recent years. Oregon public health officials and providers have identified the lack of community-based treatment facilities as a key gap in meeting the state’s needs. 

Nosse told the Housing and Homelessness Committee in March that he sponsored the bill because community mental health programs don’t have enough options for people who don’t require the Oregon State Hospital’s intensive treatment, but still need more services than an outpatient facility. 

Calling the bill a “piece of the puzzle,” Nosse referenced how communities in Oregon have seen more people housed in tents, RVs or cars.  

“Not every one of the houseless individuals that people see on the street need to be in a secure residential treatment facility or in a residential treatment facility,” he said. “But I’m going to submit to you that probably some of them do.”

H.B. 2506 redefines “residential facility” and “residential home” in state law to include secure residential treatment homes and continuing care retirement communities, as well as housing where residents receive services for mental or behavioral disorders. The change would mean local governments couldn’t block siting of these types of housing. As written, the bill applies to facilities serving six to 15 individuals.   

The bill would still allow opponents of these types of housing developments to challenge them before the Land Use Board of Appeals, a state panel that adjudicates land-use disputes. But if they lose, they’ll have to pay attorneys fees to the developer. 

Backers of the bill include Disability Rights Oregon, land-use watchdog group 1000 Friends of Oregon, social services network Greater Oregon Behavioral Health Inc., as well as the Association of Oregon Counties, the League of Oregon Cities and others.

Wasco County Sheriff Lane Magill told the committee that local governments are planning to open the Columbia Gorge Resolution Center, a “no-barrier” facility he said will provide residential treatment “for individuals who desperately need it.”

“The communities and region this will serve cannot afford any delay to getting these critical resources up and running,” he said. 

Nobody signed up to testify against the bill. But Republican members of the committee expressed concerns that the bill would allow residential treatment facilities, possibly serving registered sex offenders, to be sited near schools. 

Nosse said he was open to amending the bill to have a buffer between these facilities and schools. He added he didn’t think the bill would result in houses in residential areas being retrofitted into treatment settings. 

“I don’t think we’re going to see a lot of these show up in sort of residential-ish neighborhoods, unless there’s an old apartment complex or an old motel,” he said. 

‘Not often founded or grounded in reality’

Baker, of Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare, told The Lund Report the bill would give better legal footing to cities interested in building affordable housing and nonprofits trying to build residential treatment settings. But she said it won’t overcome all opposition to building these types of housing. 

“There’s just a lack of understanding around mental illness and what people’s rights are,” she said. “And there’s so much fear associated with it that’s not often founded or grounded in reality.”

Since the Heritage Square project in Astoria fell through, she said her group is working to purchase a property on Marine Drive, outside of downtown, for a supportive housing project that she said has more community buy-in. 

In the meantime, Baker said she’ll be watching to see if similar opposition prevents recently authorized state dollars from establishing new residential treatment facilities. 

Oregon lawmakers in 2021 allocated $130 million that created 198 additional beds in residential facilities, according to Oregon Health Authority figures

Nosse told The Lund Report that while he’s working to address issues with the bill, it’s a “medium” priority. He said he’s more focused on securing money for residential treatment facilities. 

The state’s upcoming two-year budget is expected to include additional funding for residential treatment that could be as high as $271 million for nearly 600 beds. 

You can reach Jake at [email protected] or via Twitter @jakethomas2009.