March 21, 2018 – Everybody knows what Oregon’s housing crisis looks like. It sleeps, rolled up in a blanket, in a downtown Portland doorway. Or maybe it finds a tent, and hides in plain sight under a Portland bridge.
But if you look some more, you can see it driving families from Northeast Portland to mid-Multnomah County – and families from mid-county leaving an after-school program they helped build at Earl Boyles Elementary School to seek affordable housing even farther east. The housing crisis is a wave of Oregon students with their education broken by a rent-driven changing of schools.
Take a little wider view, and you see the crisis seeping all over the state, from Portland suburbs to the exploding recreation areas of eastern, southern and coastal Oregon, where housing prices are shooting stratospherically past working family incomes.
And you can see it in food pantries all over the state, where Oregonians stop for groceries because paying for someplace to live doesn’t leave them with enough to buy dinner.
“What you see with the homeless,” says Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, from outer southeast Portland, “is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Last month, Keny-Guyer and affordable housing supporters, along with advocates from a range of organizations such as Oregon Food Bank, pushed the legislature to chip away at the iceberg. In the most significant move, the document fee for a real estate transaction was increased from $20 to $60. The proceeds – about $30 million a year – will be dedicated to housing assistance like rent and home purchases, to building affordable housing, and to establishing emergency shelters.
As a revenue measure, the bill needed a three-fifths supermajority, but more than enough Republicans came along in both houses to pass it. After all, sleeping in doorways or on a friend’s couch is bipartisan.
The legislature has dealt with housing before – last year it came up with $40 million – but this change creates a permanent, dedicated revenue stream, available as predictably as the rent coming due.
“It means,” explains Anneliese Koehler, an Oregon Food Bank policy advocate, “we won’t have to fight for that every two years.”
“We’re so excited,” gushed Alison McIntosh, deputy director of Neighborhood Partnerships and convener of the Oregon Housing Alliance. With some other efforts, it means that the state will be reliably putting $90 million into the housing crisis every two years.
Still, the coalition of housing advocates will keep working on the issue in future sessions. For Oregon Food Bank, the housing issue may not be about hunger, but it’s about what makes Oregonians hungry.
As Koehler points out, when people get into affordable housing — calculated as accessible to households making 80% of the local average income – “Some will no longer rely on food pantries.”
The greatest success of a food bank is to have fewer customers.
Besides supporting local efforts, the state money will leverage some federal spending on affordable housing. The legislature also provided $5 million in emergency shelter funding, and expanded the power of local governments to issue bonds for housing. With the support of Realtors, the legislature created state tax-exempt savings accounts for first-time home buyers trying to get together down payments. They also set up a commission to investigate racial discrimination in the housing market.
There is, of course, considerably more work to do. Keny-Guyer, chairman of the House Human Services and Housing Committee, points out that there is no named housing committee in the Senate, meaning that in that chamber, housing legislation can be what you might call homeless.
Nobody, especially those who’ve looked at the streets and schools of Oregon, thinks that this effort will solve the state’s problem. “The housing crisis,” says Koehler, “is going to take a lot of solutions.”
But there’s at least one thing this year’s legislation is likely to achieve.
“It’s going to make a huge difference,” says McIntosh, “to the folks who live in those apartments.”