Oregon lawmaker says housing is core state responsibility
In another sign of how the affordable housing crisis has become a top political issue, state Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, D-Portland, says the Oregon Legislature should consider housing to be a core responsibility of state government, like transportation, education and health care.
"There has been a paradigm shift in how we think about housing," Keny-Guyer said at the Oregon Leadership Summit on Dec. 4 in Portland. The federal government has historically played a big role in housing since the mid-1930s and with the Johnson administration's 1965 creation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Keny-Guyer made her statement as a panelist at an afternoon session titled "Yes in My Back Yard (YIMBY)! Building More Housing Units in Urban, Suburban and Rural Oregon." It follows increased spending on affordable housing by the Portland City Council and Metro's decision to consider placing an affordable-housing bond on the November 2018 ballot.
Keny-Guyer has a lot of influence on the issue, as chair of the House Interim Committee on Human Services and Housing, but other panelists made it clear there are no quick and easy solutions.
Mike Wilkerson, a senior economist at the ECONorthwest consulting firm, kicked off the panel discussion by saying Oregon has a severe housing shortage. Citing an ongoing study by his firm, Wilkerson said 155,000 more homes should have been built over the past 15 years to keep up with growing demand. To catch up and reduce soaring housing cost increases, at least 30,000 additional units need to be built every year for the next 20 years — a little less than twice the 17,000 per year being built today, he said.
Meeting that goal is impossible under current conditions, said Kelly Ritz, president of Stone Bridge Homes NW, which builds single-family homes in the Portland metropolitan area and Central Oregon. Ritz said the Great Recession decimated the local homebuilding industry. Housing construction almost completely stopped then, Ritz said, driving most of her company's competitors out of business and forcing their workers to find jobs in other fields. Potential new workers went elsewhere, too.
Even though the economy has recovered, Ritz said her company cannot find enough qualified construction workers to keep up with demand. And she said increasing government regulations and processing delays are slowing the time it takes to build new homes.
"Before the recession, it took 18 months to get a house under construction. Now it's two-and-a-half to five years," said Ritz, adding that increasing system development charges now add $30,000 to $60,000 to the cost of every new house.
Keny-Guyer stressed the need to build more housing for households earning 60 percent or less of the area median income. But there is also a great need for "workforce housing" affordable to households earning between 60 and 120 percent of area median income, said Jason Lewis-Berry, director of the state's Regional Solutions program and an economic policy adviser to Gov. Kate Brown.
"When Brown and I travel the state, we hear about the need for more workforce housing," Lewis-Berry said.
A lack of all kinds of housing is hurting rural parts of the state, said Sarah Beaubien, senior director of stewardship and farm engagement for the Tillamook County Creamery Association. According to Beaubien, the Tillamook Creamery almost always has at least 20 vacant jobs because applicants cannot find anywhere to live. One manager, who moved into a motel after taking the job, quit after a short time because he could not find a home for his family in the area, Beaubien said.
In the face of such problems, Keny-Guyer admitted the state's response has been woefully inadequate. She noted the Oregon Legislature has only recently begun increasing funding for rent assistance, foreclosure prevention and affordable housing construction.
Although she applauded House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, for prioritizing housing last session, Keny-Guyer promised that more ambitious proposals will be considered at the 35-day legislative session beginning in February. One bill would increase the existing $35 recording fee on real estate transactions to $75, to generate $112.5 million a year for housing services and production. Keny-Guyer said voters also will be offered the opportunity to ease restrictions in the Oregon Constitution that currently prevent state and local governments from partnering with the private sector on affordable-housing projects funded by bond measures.
"We need all kinds of housing in all kinds of zoning," Keny-Guyer said.
The 15th-annual summit drew more than 1,200 businesspeople, policy wonks, politicians and others to the Oregon Convention Center. The event also serves as the vehicle for unveiling the annual Oregon Business Plan, a policy roadmap for stimulating the economy and supporting business in the state.
"Is Oregon Future Ready?" was the theme of this year's summit, which included presentations and panel discussions on trends expected to reshape the economy in coming years. ECONorthwest President John Tapogna discussed his firm's recent study that found roughly half of all jobs in Oregon are at risk of being replaced by automation. Although the study, commissioned by the Value of Jobs Coalition, found that rural parts of the state will be hit hardest, over 48 percent of jobs in the Portland area are also at risk.
The study recommends that state leaders prioritize education to better prepare younger Oregonians for the high-skill jobs that are not so easily replaced.
The discussion continued during two afternoon panels. One, titled "The Future Economy," looked at the coming wave of artificial intelligence, machine learning, advanced robotics and other technologies that will reshape the state's economy over the next 10 years. The other, titled "The Future of Learning," addressed the knowledge and skills needed to prosper in a world of continuous change.
Other topics at the conference included the future of transportation, social service programs, health care and housing.