Housing for all should be the goal
It's a problem seen across the Portland area: For years, average household income has stayed mostly flat, but housing prices have been on the rise.
Here in western Washington County, we've traditionally enjoyed a lower cost of living than our brethren in Portland and some of its closer-in suburbs. Real estate here is cheaper. Rents aren't as high.
But as changes occur in Portland, they ripple out to the edges of the metro area eventually.
In recent years, one of the biggest local controversies in Portland has been how to address the city's homeless. The "Right 2 Dream Too" camp that has become iconic in the City of Roses moved last year to a new location after lengthy negotiations. The city has tried — sometimes with grace, other times clumsily — to juggle the concerns of residents and the needs of people without the means to afford shelter, hundreds of whom camp by the bike trails of the Springwater Corridor and others of whom have taken to living out of vehicles parked along residential streets.
Listen to Oregon Public Broadcasting's two-part series on life in the Springwater Corridor camps from 2016.
Washington County certainly has not escaped the scourge of homelessness, either. Late last decade, the county launched a 10-year plan to "end homelessness." Getting an update from county staff in November on how the plan is faring in its ninth year, the Board of Commissioners heard that virtually nothing has changed.
"It's not worse," said Annette Evans, the county's coordinator of homeless programs, at that meeting. "But it's not appreciably getting better."
In Hillsboro and Forest Grove, homelessness is an issue that local churches and other organizations are doing their best to tackle. After a Beaverton man froze to death on the street a decade ago, several churches across the county have made a committment to open their doors as homeless shelters when the weather drops below freezing. Hillsboro's Sonrise Church runs a 90-day homeless shelter each winter, which wrapped up last week.Some homeless residents have become local celebrities, of a sort, in their communities, — like John Wedell, who splits his time between Forest Grove and Astoria and is rarely seen without his red bike helmet and a collection of shopping carts. Most live in anonymity.
Point made, then: Homelessness is a widespread issue, it's one that is not easy to fix and it's one that history tells us isn't going away any time soon.
And then there are the people who aren't homeless but lack financial security.
Maybe you work at Intel and have a six-figure salary; your partner is a schoolteacher who makes less than you but gets regular cost-of-living adjustments thanks to the teachers' union; you have two kids and a dog and live within your means in a cute 15-year-old bungalow. Or maybe you work a checkout counter at Safeway, you're divorced, you babysit for your neighbors some nights so you can pay the rent on your one-bedroom apartment, and you wish you could put a whole lot more money than you can into your daughter's college savings.
Maybe you're retired and dreading the day when your savings from a career selling life insurance run out, because you know Social Security and Medicare won't be enough to cover all your expenses as you get older. Maybe you're a student at Pacific University, excited to graduate this spring and trying not to think about just how many years it will take for you to pay off your student loans. Maybe you just lost your job and you're wondering how many times you can be late on your mortgage before the bank forecloses on you.
There are thousands of stories like these. Chances are, even if your life more closely resembles that of the comfortable but not extravagant Intel employee than it does the cashier single parent working odd jobs to make ends meet, you know people who are on uneasy financial footing — for whom a stroke of bad luck, a layoff or an illness or a legal matter could be the difference between having a home and having none.
That's why we were pleased last week to hear city officials in Forest Grove talking seriously about affordable housing. While we believe that more market-rate apartments are a necessary component to the area's housing market, the number-one need continues to be housing for people who are running out of options — who may be getting priced out of the housing market at the current rental rates and list prices, or who may be on fixed incomes and in need of support.
Catch up on the Forest Grove City Council's most recent discussion on the subject of affordable housing.
But what we want to see is, in the words of the great Elvis Presley, "A little less conversation, a little more action, please."
Washington County's 10-year plan to end homelessness has led to the homeless population in the county staying almost exactly the same. Moving the Right 2 Dream Too camp to a less conspicuous location than West Burnside Street in the middle of downtown Portland doesn't make it, or the people who can't afford not to sleep there every night, go away. Talking about how "nice" it would be if developers included low-income housing in their projects doesn't actually create more low-income housing.We were encouraged to hear Forest Grove City Councilor Malynda Wenzl state the need to "act quickly" on the issue of affordable housing. We hope Forest Grove will, using whatever policy tools are within its means. We hope the same for Hillsboro, where policy-makers needn't look further than Orenco Station for proof that affordable housing can fit into a neighborhood that looks and feels upscale — there's no need to fence people out of attractive new communities on the basis of income level.
Make no mistake: It's not going to be easy. Trying to "end homelessness" is like trying to achieve "world peace" — it's a goal worth striving for even when the odds of reaching it for a moment, let alone in perpetuity, are remote. Convincing developers to build affordable housing when they can charge record rents for market-rate apartments will take patience, diplomacy and sacrifice. It means cities that are already struggling to keep up with deferred maintenance, public employee benefits and other ongoing costs will likely have to give up a little more in anticipated tax revenue.
But it's worth doing, despite the effort. It's worth doing because one day, you might be figuring out which of your bills to pay this month, too. It's worth doing because it's not just people of means who contribute to making our community a great place to live. And it's worth doing because making sure people have homes they can afford is the right thing to do.
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