SIG UNANDERCynthia Johnson (not her real name) has led a good life.

A retired marketing manager in her late sixties, she lives alone in a clean, tidy Beaverton apartment. She has good credit, some savings and until recently lived comfortably, if frugally, on Social Security and a modest corporate pension. Proud and self-sufficient, she has never taken welfare, food stamps or similar entitlements.

But a series of successive double-digit rent increases over the past seven years have steadily eaten away Cynthia’s savings and driven up her housing expenses. A rent payment of 30 percent or less of a household’s gross income is considered affordable under the accepted definition. But Cynthia now spends a staggering 67 percent of her income on rent. It leaves little for food, medicine, insurance, transportation, clothing and other essentials. A coming increase this spring will force her out of the home she expected to live out her life in.

She will have few options. Washington County has an affordable housing gap of 14,000 units in the commercial market and the county housing authority has a waiting list of some 5,000 families and individuals for the various programs they offer. And there are no shelter beds available in the county for homeless adults without children.

Cynthia is the new face of homelessness: a retired middle-class senior living on a fixed income. Her plight exemplifies that of many in this growing demographic who worked hard, planned carefully and thought they were set for retirement. With the inflation rate virtually nil, her indexed social security and pension payments provide no increase in income while metro area rents continue to escalate an average of 11 percent per year. Low inflation is therefore of little benefit to seniors on fixed incomes.

The problem is especially acute for seniors with chronic (and costly) medical conditions or whose job skills are unsuitable for today’s market and have limited options to increase their income. Ongoing wage stagnation and a plethora of low-paying part-time jobs suggest that those who can get jobs will, in time, again face housing challenges.

Homeless seniors and those at risk of becoming homeless, especially “unattached individuals” like Cynthia, are a fast-growing part of a broader problem. The lack of affordable housing is increasingly interconnected with homelessness and is now its leading cause, eclipsing even medical costs. It is one of the most intractable issues we face. Solving it will require ongoing commitment and concerted efforts in both the public and private sectors.

An obvious solution would for developers to build more affordable rental housing so that supply and demand are better balanced and the steeply rising rent curve levels off. But that’s a bit like kicking a football at a moving goal post. With a projected 400,000 newcomers arriving in the metro area over the next 20 years and with a limited supply of zoned and buildable land, competition for affordable units will likely remain strong, keeping rents high and vacancy rates low.

What else, then?

With little likelihood that the federal government will build or subsidize much more affordable public housing, basic solutions will rest mostly with state, county and municipal government, public-private partnerships, developers, nonprofits, churches and the participation of private citizens.

Focus needs to be on addressing fundamental factors that limit the supply of affordable housing and access to it, rather than cosmetic “feel-good” fixes and efforts must involve all key stakeholders. Strategies to increase the supply of affordable units such as removing the ban on inclusionary zoning, providing incentives for developers who build affordable units and easing restrictions on the construction of ADUs or so-called tiny houses, would help.

Adjustments to cost of living indexes used to calculate social security and corporate pension payments should be made so that they are based on a profile of goods and services that seniors actually use, such as medicine, health care and housing. This will help seniors stay healthy, remain in their homes and age in place, saving taxpayer money in the long run.

Steps must be taken in the short term to prevent the affordable housing/homeless problem from getting worse while long-term solutions take effect. “Gap funding” through tax credits or bond issuance can help developers building affordable housing close financing gaps and complete projects faster. Programs that prevent at-risk individuals and families from becoming homeless such as the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program and Prevention Rent Assistance should be utilized as appropriate.

Sig Unander is a communications professional who lives in Cornelius.

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