PORTLAND, Oregon — Oregon's housing crisis has been front and center during this year's legislative session as the state and its new governor, Tina Kotek, struggle to tackle a problem that has been years in the making.
The scale of the shortage makes it difficult for even aggressive solutions to produce quick improvements; it will take a long time to build the hundreds of thousands of housing units Oregon will need to not only make up for the exsiting shortfall but stay ahead of future population growth.
But there is one creative approach that can produce additional housing much faster, and without having to build anything at all: home sharing, in which existing homeowners rent out their unused rooms to tenants in search of affordable housing.
Tess Fields, executive director of Home Share Oregon, and Margaret Van Vliet, former director of Oregon Housing and Community services, were guests on this week's episode of Straight Talk to discuss the state of Oregon's housing crisis and the immediate impact that home sharing can have.
They were joined by James Dirksen, an Oregon homeowner who has rented out a portion of his house for more than 20 years, hosting a variety of tenants, to talk about his experience as a home sharing participant.
The conversation also touched on Oregon House Bill 3032, which would create tax incentives for homeowners who rent out rooms long-term at affordable rates.
How Oregon fell behind
A mix of problems have caused Oregon to fall behind on housing production over the years and fail to keep up with population growth, Van Vliet explained.
"One thing that stands out for me is that lots of industries have evolved and changed and seen a lot of innovation, but home building and home construction really has not changed much in many decades. So that's one piece — the pace of construction really hasn't changed much," she said.
Local governments also need to be able to plan, zone and issue permits for building, she said, and that can often become a bottleneck. Financing for affordable housing can also become very complicated.
It's also not just a question of affordable housing availability, she added. The shortage is more concentrated at lower levels, but Oregon is short on housing stock at all income levels.
The housing shortage has negative impacts on the state's economy, she said, because it leaves employers struggling to recruit workers as those workers can't find affordable housing nearby. First responders and public employees can also struggle to find housing.
Construction costs for affordable housing currently runs about $400,000 per unit, Van Vliet said. Apartment buildings will often use several sources of public money for financing, she said, creating added legal costs, and there are tough requirements for things like energy efficiency and quality building materials.
Home sharing option
Home Share Oregon is a relatively new nonprofit that matches people who have unused rooms in their homes with people in need of affordable housing. The group just surpassed 900 homeowners signed up, Fields said.
"There's about 1.5 million owner-occupied homes across the state of Oregon that have a spare bedroom available, and one out of every three homeowners are mortgage-burdened," she said. "Our seniors specifically — 40% of our seniors are reporting that they're at risk of foreclosure."
Matching those homeowners with housemates could potentially house another 30,000 people, Fields said, without having to build any new infrastructure and while giving homeowners more financial resilience at the same time.
Home Share Oregon's most common clients are women over the age of 50, many of whom have experienced the death of a spouse or a divorce, Fields said. The average homesharing agreement tends to be about $750 per month, but the agreements can vary significantly, with room for bargaining and negotiations.
The organization provides free screening technology to find compatible housemates and homeowners, she said, as well as free background checks and home sharing agreements, plus case management services for senior clients.
Those components are all important, she said, because the organization does get a lot of questions about safety. The screening process works both ways, making sure housemates feel comfortable too.
"Homesharing isn't for everyone, and it's absolutely not a decision that should be made impulsively," she said.
20 years of home sharing
Dirksen said he and his wife jumped into the home sharing world two decades ago, and they've hosted a wide range of housemates in that time.
"Right after the pandemic (began) I think we had 14 people in our home," he said. "We had four college students, two high school students, a young family plus our own family, all living in various places in our big house."
And a few years ago, during a summer of intense wildfires, the couple hosted a 75-year-old man who had been homeless in their neighborhood. The thick smoke made it unsafe for him to be outside, Dirksen said, so they initially hosted him for a few days, but he ended up staying with them for about two years until he found his own housing.
Safety concerns are important in the home sharing world, Dirksen said, so the background checks and home sharing agreements are important, and homeowners do need to be conscious of who exactly they want to invite into their homes.
"There's a large demand for affordable housing right now, so homeowners are in a great situation to be kind of picky about who they want to come in, and make sure it's a really good fit for them, for their lifestyle and for political choices, dietary choices, do they want dogs, do they not want dogs, do they want sponges or dish towels, those kind of things," he said.