Commentary

Oregon’s economy is pushing more people into homelessness

Families increasingly are on the edge, and it’s not because of personal choices

May 10, 2022 5:30 am

Oregon should brace for an increase in homelessness as inflation takes its toll. (Getty Images)

Oregon is facing a new housing crisis beyond anything we have seen to date.

Desperately needed eviction prevention programs have poured more than half a billion dollars into the rental market since 2020, protecting thousands that lost income during the pandemic.  A series of eviction moratoriums and tenant protections, in support of the financial resources, have kept Oregon evictions low.

In a typical pre-pandemic year, there were roughly 18,000 evictions – about 1,500 a month.  To our collective credit, the numbers of evictions have not returned to that pre-pandemic level, though the gap shrinks every month.

We can take no solace, however, in these numbers.

A pre-pandemic eviction is not the same as one now, because opportunities for re-housing are minimal.  Nor are the numbers of evictions even close to the number of people losing their housing for inability to pay.

Many more have voluntarily left their homes rather than face formal eviction.  Many leave when they receive notice of legal action, hoping to spare their families the trauma of a knock at the door and a lockout.

Research suggests these informal self-evictions are 5.5 times the number of actual eviction filings. So the 1,122 Oregon evictions in March hides another 5,600 households who lost their homes. This economic violence falls heavily on the poorest of our citizens, especially on people of color.

This is both an economic crisis for our working poor and yet more evidence of the callous consequences of white supremacy in Oregon.

Just as the cost of single-family homes has skyrocketed, rental costs have bludgeoned our working poor, increasing by 50%. New units are coming online rapidly, but not fast enough to matter. And most of the new units will be market rate.

Vacancy rates hover at 2-2.5%, making rental stock heavily competitive, and availability dependent on tightening conditions of credit and wages that can support a 3-to-1 income-to-rental cost ratio.  Much of the perceived affordability baked into that old 3-to-1 ratio is smoke and mirrors. Inflationary forces in the Consumer Price Index pushed prices up 8.5% last month, the largest recorded increase since the recession year of 1981.

Wages have not kept up with the cost of living, and the gains in wealth have mostly been reserved for homeowners. Increased wages are more heavily concentrated in white collar and professional work, and are less visible in unskilled labor.  That means that low-income families have to pay more, especially for gas and food, creating painful choices for the working poor: “Do we buy groceries, or put gas in the tank so we can get to work this week?”

The gold standard for understanding the impact of these high rents and their relationship to income and housing stability is the concept of “cost burdened” (households spending 30% of their income on housing costs and utilities) and “severely cost burdened” (households spending 50%+).

In April, the National Low Income Housing Coalition reported that “extremely low income” households in Oregon are 87% cost burdened, and 76% severely cost burdened. “Very low income” households are 80% cost burdened and 36% severely cost burdened. These households are one bad break from homelessness.

Runaway basic-need inflation makes the already high number of rent-burdened households in Oregon greater than it otherwise appears.  Those that lose their homes have nowhere to go.  Thousands more are living on the absolute edge, unable to afford basic standards of living for fear of becoming homeless.  Every day there are women living with their children in cars. And elderly and disabled folks who cannot afford the rental increases and must go hungry to make rent.

Some will solve their own problems.  Many will not.

For those evicted, they will face a gauntlet of few open rental units, at impossibly high prices, with credit and other personal and financial history barriers that are too great to overcome.  Some of those, the lucky ones, can live with their families.

Others will join our large and growing homeless population. Just this week, the metro counties released their homeless numbers for 2022, showing a 25% increase over 2019.  Central Oregon saw a 17% increase.

Our homeless crisis is no longer a phenomenon that can be dismissed as a crisis of personal responsibility and poor choices.  The next generation of Oregon’s homeless are today’s working poor families.

We have reached a cliff, where if we fail to act there will be two Oregons tomorrow, one rich and one poor. One with a future, and one fighting every day to survive.

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Jimmy Jones

Jimmy Jones is the executive director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency in Salem. The agency provides anti-poverty and harm-reduction programs in Marion and Polk counties, and some program areas serve as many as 11 Oregon counties. Jones also serves as the chair of the Legislative Committee of the Community Action Partnership of Oregon. He is also a member of the Housing, Homelessness and Human Services Committee of the Governor’s Racial Justice Council.

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