Severe rent burden confronting Forest Grove
Oregon House Bill 4006 defines rent-burdened cities as cities with a population of more than 10,000 persons where more than one-quarter of renter households pay more than half of their household income on rent.
The Oregon Department of Housing and Community Services (OHCS) identifies the city of Forest Grove as being severely rent-burdened — and that's a problem.
"In the last five years, we have seen an absolute massive increase in rents and people who I know who were working, and middle income people could not afford their rents once those rents were increased," Forest Grove City Councilor Elena Uhing said. "As a result, they had to try and find something substandard in order to pay their monthly rent bill. So, this is happening across Oregon, the nation, and in Forest Grove, and I don't feel that our leaders have stepped up to address this long term."
Based on OHCS data, 34.6% of renter households in Forest Grove experience severe rent burden, meaning 1,126 households pay more than half of their household income on rent.
In contrast, neighboring Cornelius' severe rent burden number is 17.8%, while Hillsboro is at 18.3%.
Of the 49 Oregon cities with a population of at least 10,000, just five rank higher than Forest Grove when it comes to severe rent burden.
The rent burden issue was addressed at a city work session in Forest Grove last Monday, Dec. 21. Among the topics of conversation were the recognition of a problem, along with identifying causes, consequences, potential solutions, and barriers to those solutions.
Forest Grove community development director Bryan Pohl said the rent burden issue has been on the radar of city staff, but it will take a concerted effort to address.
"Our City Council has done a lot of work on trying to attract affordable housing, and we've seen some regulated affordable housing," Pohl said. "But there's undoubtedly a lot of work still yet to be done."
The average rental price for a 718-square-foot apartment in Forest Grove is $1,174 as of December 2020, up 5% from 2019, according to data shared at the Dec. 21 meeting. In comparison, the average rental price for a 954-square-foot apartment in Hillsboro is $1,547.
Hillsboro has a median household income of $78,144, while Forest Grove's median household income is $59,902.
Pohl said that Forest Grove currently has roughly 600 units of affordable housing. That number is set to increase, he noted, referring to a new development application to be filed in early January, along with the grocery store complex planned for construction on the B Street property adjacent to the Jesse Quinn Apartments, as steps in the right direction.
But Pohl also cited rising property, system development, infrastructure and building material costs as obstacles to more affordable housing in the area.
Additionally, the community development director said land availability — or lack thereof — continues to be a factor when it comes to inflated prices.
"We have a lot of regulatory mechanisms in place that combat and prevent a major sprawl like you see in places like Phoenix or Las Vegas," Pohl said, referring to Oregon's strict urban growth boundary laws. "We've constrained our lands and the ability to afford to provide housing, partially as a means of conserving much of the area's natural beauty, but there are tradeoffs for that."
As a further sign of supply and demand dictating price, Pohl noted that it's not the city government or even developers who determine the sale of property, but rather frequently, landowners who have a number in mind.
"The market controls when land develops and not us, so land is going to develop market conditions such that it's worthwhile to do so," Pohl said. "If that landowner who has to sell to a developer is waiting for a certain price or holding up for a certain price, it will only get developed when that price is agreeable to both parties."
The City is trying, having adopted several policies and programs to promote construction and retention of affordable housing. Such programs include:
• System development charge deferrals to occumpancy for affordable ousing projects
• Vertical Housing Development zone
• Non-profit Corporation Low Income Housing Property Tax Exemption
• Density bonus of 20 units per acre in the Town Center and Community Comercial zones for housing affordable to households with incomes at or below 60 percent of area median income.
In addition, the City amended the planned development section of the Development Code to require a variety of housing types such as duplexes and townhomes, and the Development Code itself in the interests of increasing permissible residential densities within the Community Commercial Zone.
With that being said, Uhing stated that as part of the conversation surrounding affordable housing, we tend to focus more on policy surrounding price than we do overall cost.
The cost of living goes well beyond housing, as Uhing noted. Utilities cost money — as does insurance, upkeep and taxes, to say nothing of other life necessities, such as food, clothing and healthcare.
And there are economic factors beyond any household's control.
The past nine months have led to greatly heightened unemployment numbers, mostly due to the pandemic. While the state and federal governments have offered some assistance, some renters are still facing the prospect of needing to pay months' worth of rent when Oregon's moratorium on residential evictions expires, likely in mid-2021.
"Now we are going to have a whole new cohort, which is a group of people who have always worked, always paid their bills, and never been in poverty slipping into poverty, and possibly into homelessness if we don't act," Uhing warned.
Uhing, who also sits on Washington County's homeless advisory committee, added, "I think the primary barrier is that people who have never lived in poverty have no understanding of what poverty is, and without that concept of reality, and what it's like, they have no idea about how to solve it, or empathy for what is really happening in those people's lives."
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