Our view: Get real about counting homeless, building homes
The voting for Oregon's primary election ended Tuesday and we likely will know the outcome of all races by Friday. Did the endorsements of the Pamplin Media Group influence any of the races? We'll know soon.
With that said, we are prepared to offer a field guide to where our endorsements this November will go: To those candidates who take a serious and scientific approach to homelessness and housing.
As a region, we solve none of our most pressing problems if we don't solve these.
When we look at the candidates in the November races, we won't be asking how many shelters they built, how many soup cauldrons they filled, how many tons of garbage they hauled away. We will be asking: How many people are homeless?
That includes sheltered, unsheltered, couch-surfers and those doubling and tripling up in apartments or homes.
Right now, nobody can answer that question. We do not know.
If a candidate says, "We got 5,000 people into shelters," we will ask, "Five thousand out of how many?" What percentage is that? A few, some, many, most? If you give us the numerator but not the denominator, it means next to nothing.
Did you get 5,000 people into shelters as 6,000 more fell into the status of homelessness?
The candidates who figure out this herculean task will have a leg up on our full-throated endorsement. There is no question that this is an extremely difficult task. If it was easy, it would have been done already. Can any one agency do it? Not likely. It will take a combination, probably at the city, county, regional and state level. It will take boots on the ground. It will require constant updating. It likely will require apps or online portals that allow those with housing insecurity to self-report. It will take tech-savvy and ingenuity. It will take good — no, make that great — inter-agency communications.
It will be expensive.
But do this, and the metro area will lead the nation in coming to grips with the crisis of homelessness. If we can figure out who is homeless, why they're homeless, and where they are, in real time, we can craft policies that target those in most need.
That which isn't measured cannot be fixed. And the combination of candidates at all levels of public office who combine their energy to get this one right deserve everyone's vote.
The consulting firm ECONorthwest has been preaching this for some time now and we wholly agree: A long-term underproduction of housing for low- and middle-income Oregonians has made our region unaffordable for working-class families, drives up the cost of living, and is one of several factors leading to homelessness.
It's long been understood that a community needs to build — at a minimum — one new home for every new family moving here or coming of age here. According to research conducted by ECONorthwest, from 1960 to 2016, nationwide, approximately 1.1 housing units were built nationally for every new household formed.
But from 2000 to 2016, Oregon produced far fewer new housing units; about 89 units for every 100 households.
During the great recession of 2010-16 alone, that fell to about 63 units for every 100 households.
To quote from a ECONorthwest report, "Despite the number of cranes crowding skylines across the western portion of the state, 37 out of every 100 newly formed households had to compete for a limited stock of housing during the economic recovery."
Since 2016, Multnomah County fell to building only 59 homes for every 100 families. Clackamas County's number is 78 and Washington County's is 71. We have some massive housing projects going up, especially in Washington County. But how many of those new projects will be for low- and middle-income Oregonians?
Today, the cost of living in the Portland area is higher than that of Seattle.
So the candidates at every level who vow to take a scientific approach to addressing the lack of housing stock will get our backing.
That means taking a critical look at existing policies to see if they helped. The metro region has been hemorrhaging single-family rental property since the enactment of policies designed to help renters. If a good-hearted policy makes a problem worse, be bold enough to dump it and try again.
We hope that candidates at the city, county and regional level take this seriously, but we're looking at you, the gubernatorial hopefuls. And you, those seeking seats in the Legislature. This is a statewide problem. It's going to be expensive. It can't be piecemeal. We need a holistic approach to making homes more affordable — and simply making more homes.
The key word in any policy will be "and." We need apartments and houses, and accessory dwelling units, and rental assistance, and mortgage assistance, and subsidized housing, and workforce housing, and just a lot more houses.
The candidates who bridge the gap between agencies and who take a tough and scientific approach to these problems — counting the homeless and proving sufficient housing stock — need to be in office. This year.
And the Pamplin Media Group would like to help get them there.
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