Lack of low-income housing could increase homeless population

by: KEVIN SPERL - Steve Banta is one of many construction workers donating their time building out the new homeless shelter facility at Prineville's Nazerine Church on E. First St. Thirty years ago, Banta helped construct the gym that was housed in the same structure adjacent to the church.

Ask Kenny LaPoint, Housing Works’ housing and resident services director, if there is any affordable rental housing in Central Oregon and he’ll give you an honest answer.

“There isn’t any,” he replied simply.

LaPoint is rightly concerned about the growing number of low income families being pushed out of the housing market.

“Unfortunately, homelessness is coming into households because of this situation,” said LaPoint. “People live in their house for years until the landlord decides to sell and the renter then has nowhere to go. It’s not a matter of having the money for rent, there just isn’t anything out there.”

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the hourly wage needed by a Crook County family renting a two-bedroom apartment is $13.04, or $27,120 annually.

The current minimum wage in Oregon is $9.10, last adjusted in January, almost $4 below that needed to pay for housing.

The fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $678 in Crook County, and paying this amount requires one-and-a-half full time jobs, at minimum wage, in order not to exceed 30 percent of income.

Jason Carr, communications director for NeighborImpact, said that a family of four is considered to be living in poverty if making $23,021, or less, per year.

“In Crook County, the total population is 20,605 and the poverty rate is 16.5 percent,” he said. “That means that 3,399 people make $10.58 or less per hour.”

The NLIHC takes fair market rents and determines how much a worker would have to earn per hour to afford modest housing, assuming a 40-hour work week and a 52-week year. Known as a “housing wage,” it is, unsurprisingly, much higher than the minimum wage in much of the country.

A 2013 survey by the Central Oregon Rental Owners Association revealed a 1 percent vacancy rate for units in Central Oregon that includes the communities of Bend, Redmond, Madras, Culver, Prineville, Powell Butte, La Pine, Sunriver and Sisters.

In Prineville, the survey shows that, at the end of 2013, there was a two percent vacancy rate for apartments, 25 percent for duplexes, zero percent for tri and four-plexes and four percent for single-family homes.

“These types of vacancy rates typically squeezes out low-income earners,” said Carr.

A recent posting on Craigslist lists a Prineville two bedroom, one-and-a-half bath apartment for $515 per month, with a $500 deposit, $30 application fee and $50 setup fee. Water, sewer and garbage utilities are included in the rent.

The impact of affordable housing goes well beyond simply having a place to live.

“We at NeighborImpact are facing a real affordable housing crisis because the demand for rental units is extremely high across all of Central Oregon, but the supply is almost nothing,” said Carr. “This is not a good scenario for people living in poverty. And if people can’t find decent housing and are without an address, it’s nearly impossible for them to obtain a job. Housing is a critical component in combating poverty.”

From Lapoint’s perspective, the housing crisis not only impacts a current resident’s ability to find work, it may begin to prevent new jobs from coming into the area.

“I have received many phone calls from people doing market studies, regarding businesses relocating to Central Oregon, wanting to know if housing is available,” said Lapoint. “They are concerned about the available local job force as well as bringing new people into the area.”

Even having a job is no guaranty of finding housing.

Mary Marson, associate director of housing stabilization at NeighborImpact, knows of a lot of families that are employed but unable to rely on steady income.

“Constantly changing hours at their job is a huge factor,” she said. “People are hired on for a number of hours but, depending on the economy, their hours may be reduced. There is no way with that type of job that people can sustain rent payments.”

NeighborImpact provides assistance, at least for a while, but it is a renter’s long term sustainability that concerns Marson.

“We can subsidize rent for up to 12 months based on a variety of factors, buying people a little time,” she said. “But, we can only do so much due to our limited resources.”

And, those limited resources are well spoken for, at least until the start of the organization’s next fiscal year in July.

“The bottom line is that we need more affordable housing,” said Marson. “There is such a lack of available rental units that property owners have increased rents, pricing our clients out of the market.”

For those people, availability of shelters becomes the next challenge.

“We have a shelter,” said Marson, “that can house only five families at a time.”

Marson added that the Bethlehem Inn, in Bend, accommodates five families and the Redemption House, in Prineville, provides eight beds for women and children.

Greg Sanders, executive director of Redemption House Ministries in Prineville, said that his shelter has been forced to turn away 50 women in just the past six months.

“We just started a reconstruction program. Right now we’ve got one building, an eight-bed facility, where we house our women,” explained Sanders. “We just acquired the opportunity to move into another location and we’re remodeling it for a 22-bed facility. Once completed, we’ll move the women there and the eight-bed building will become our men’s emergency shelter.”

Sanders already knows that won’t be enough capacity.

“We’re also looking at another building to purchase for men so we can expand from eight to maybe 15 beds. There’s an adjacent building that could be a residential drug and alcohol treatment facility for men as well.”

LaPoint agreed with Marson that more affordable housing is the real answer, and he feels the state has to step up with more funding.

“The state is one of the No. 1 funders of affordable housing,” he said “Of our 750 units of housing, the majority has been funded through the state of Oregon’s tax credit program, but we have not received those credits for a few years.”

LaPoint does see some positive movement in the development of new housing, maybe.

“From the sounds of it there is a lot of development coming into the pipeline,” he said. “But, a lot of it is market-rate housing. which is tough for our clients.”

LaPoint points to the development of the Oregon State University campus in Bend and the new hospital in Prineville as creating even larger demands for housing.

“I can only hope that new market-rate housing allows some of those in low-income housing to move up,” said Lapoint. “That might make some housing available for our clients.”

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