Andrea Bell took the reins of the Oregon Housing and Community Services agency during a time of upheaval: The agency was in the middle of rolling out its pandemic emergency rental assistance program to mixed results.
While the program delivered $302 million in aid to about 60,000 households, it was beset by reports of delayed or diverted funds, and tenants often waited weeks without an update on their application.
Bell, previously the agency’s director of housing stabilization, was appointed interim director of the state department, then won the post permanently, after when former leader Margaret Salazar left for a job with the federal government. Bell had previously worked as a housing administrator with the Arizona Medicaid program, and she worked in a homeless shelter early in her career.
As the housing department moves from reacting to the effects of the pandemic to tackling housing instability more broadly, Bell spoke to The Oregonian/OregonLive about her vision for the agency and how her background in social work, health administration and housing will inform her leadership. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How have your experiences framed your approach to leading Oregon’s housing agency?
A: I grew up in a working-class family from the Dominican Republic. My grandfather worked on a farm. I remember, as early as 6 or 7, some of the conversations around my grandfather’s dream of affordable housing. That was always one of the ambitions of a lifetime for our family. It ended up being one of the most formative experiences for me as a leader.
Working in the Medicaid system, it really elevated for me the alignment of health and housing on a systemic level. To understand short, medium and long-term solutions, it requires that we have a whole-health understanding and requires that we have integrated approaches .
Q: When you took over at OHCS, the agency was in the middle of distributing rent relief funds. Do you believe that program was a success overall? How could the agency have avoided issues like slow distribution of funds or logistical errors?
A: This program was transformative for our agency on multiple levels. It was birthed out of the conditions and circumstances of the economic fallout of the pandemic. Historically, OHCS does not provide direct services, instead working through grants and connecting with community partners. This program required something different, and it challenged our operations in terms of scaling to that size.
At the early onset of this program, we brought on about 50 additional people to team OHCS to support this administration, and at its peak, the rental assistance program had well over 300 people supporting it.
I think even being able to have a centralized system in place to promptly diagnose what’s working well and where we need to make pivots is important. But that we’d need 300 people to support the administration of this organization, that was something we didn’t t project.
I think it’s important to note that the need is still there. And it’s just a reminder of how we have to continue to pursue long-term housing solutions and affordability.
Q: What do you see as the role of the agency?
A: Oregon’s housing finance agency is actually quite unique in that we invest in affordable housing and preserving pathways to home ownership, housing stabilization and homeless services.
But we also have an entire community services arm. That includes homeless services and addressing energy burdens. Many of the same people in Oregon who are rent-burdened are energy-burdened as well.
Over the last couple of years, we’ve invested nearly $43 million in shelter capacity and street outreach, and much of that work was really informed by community. As we look ahead to the next couple of years, we’re asking for $800 million (from the Legislature) in housing investments, which is bold and audacious and appropriate.
Q: What are your priorities for long-term solutions to Oregon’s housing needs?
A: My belief is that the prism through which we do our work is that every single person in this state deserves safe and affordable housing in the community they choose.
We set forth our five-year strategic plan with some really aggressive but achievable goals. For example, we set out to increase the pipeline of permanent supportive housing by a thousand. We’re at nearly 990 units of permanent supportive housing across the state. (Permanent supportive housing combines services with affordable housing to help people who have been chronically homeless get stable housing and live independently.)
We set out to increase the pipeline of affordable rental housing by 25,000 units. And we have over 19,000 units of affordable rental housing.
We also need to continue to invest in preservation of affordable housing and invest in down payment assistance and access to home ownership. And we need to continue to center racial justice and equity.
Q: How do you go about centering racial justice?
A: This work requires first an acknowledgement that historically, government hasn’t always centered racial justice. We cannot be in conversation with communities if we are not willing to acknowledge those realities.
I want to elevate a couple of things that are really important for us.
One, we’ve continued to hear from communities, culturally specific entities, Black, Indigenous and people of color-led agencies, around the continued investments needed.
And we need to make sure we’re investing in place-based initiatives. In addition to needing more housing in all forms, in all shapes and sizes, we need to also care about where the housing is built, the environment in which it is built.