PORTLAND, Ore. — A new, in-depth report is taking aim at the root causes of Portland’s homeless crisis and potential remedies.
Staff at ECONorthwest released the study, titled Homelessness in the Portland Region and commissioned by the Oregon Community Foundation.
President John Tapogna said one jumping off point came from a study commissioned by KGW last year, as part of the investigative piece Tent City, USA.
KGW investigation: Tent City, USA
In the study, Portlanders were asked if they thought the homeless crisis resulted from the area’s rising cost of housing, and the prevalence of health and addiction issues.
Answers were split, 51 percent to 43 percent.
“If you're in a space like that where the public disagrees about fundamental root cause of a problem, you're going to have a hard time advancing public policy,” Tapogna said on Wednesday.
For months, staff at ECONorthwest have been digging into data tied to the housing crisis, including Multnomah County’s annual “Point in Time Count”.
They also gathered statistics on the area’s rising cost of housing and Portland's inventory of affordable housing.
As a result, the study found two overlapping core problems.
One is the recent spike in Portland’s cost of housing and how it's forcing more than 56,000 households to spend more than half their income on rent.
“You don't know among that population who is going to encounter a crisis,” said Tapogna. “Some might be evicted. Some might lose a job. Others may have a domestic violence episode…that will trip them into an episode of homelessness.”
Tied to that, researchers pointed out funding to government subsidy programs have failed to keep up with rising rents.
That includes “Housing Choice Vouchers”, also known as Section 8, which cover the difference between 30 percent of a recipient’s income and their rent.
“Section 8 rent subsidies have not changed with need in Portland,” said Tapogna. “If the price of housing is going up, all those programs become more expensive.”
The other core cause of Portland’s crisis, according to the study, is the lack of resources aimed at getting the city’s “chronically homeless” off the streets.
“There are about 1,700 or so individuals in this region who do have some serious personal circumstances that they’re working with, be it mental illness, physical disabilities, problems with substance abuse,” said Tapogna.
The report then goes on to list recommended actions, to alleviate the crisis. They are:
- Expand and add analytic rigor to the effort to end chronic homelessness. The region has long sought to end chronic homelessness, and trends would suggest it lost ground in recent years. The manageable scale of the problem offers hope that this crisis is solvable. The effort begins with creating new PSH units, and the region has shown recent progress on that front. But new units—and their associated services—are only part of the answer. The region will also need to invest in better analytic capabilities and build rigorous evaluations into its programming.
- Identify populations—in addition to chronically homeless single adults—that supportive housing models could serve cost effectively. Public and nonprofit agencies in a number of regions are testing the costs and benefits of extending supportive housing interventions to families with children. Some of the collaborations are organized under “pay for success” frameworks, in which investors commit funding upfront in return for calculable, downstream savings. These demonstrations may yield insights into specific populations (e.g., families involved in the child welfare system) that could be costeffectively targeted for PSH interventions.
- Recognize that shallow, temporary subsidies require additional evidence, and enter into partnerships to identify next-generation, low-cost alternatives to the HCV. The federal government’s HCV program is a proven homelessness prevention tool, but it covers only a quarter of eligible households. To spread limited resources to unserved vi HCV-eligible populations, Portland and many other communities have experimented with shallow and temporary rent subsidies. Shallow, temporary subsidies remain promising but unproven. Here, the region would be well-served by recognizing the policy unknowns, partnering with think thanks and communities from across the country, and continuing the investigation for effective, lower-cost alternatives to the HCV.
- Increase the supply of affordable housing units. Rent-restricted units, regardless of what income bracket they target, provide stable housing for people who need it. They are also an important component of any comprehensive approach to addressing homelessness. Rent vouchers stretch further when they are used to buy down rent from 60% median family income (MFI) to 30% MFI, than when they are buying down market rate rent. In the past, rent-restricted units were primarily federally funded, but those resources are insufficient to meet the regional need. Local revenue-raising efforts are important steps. To ensure that those resources go as far as they can, local governments should evaluate opportunities for additional incentives, such as state enabled tax abatement programs, fee waivers or reductions, and land write-downs for affordable units. They should also identify and remove regulatory barriers that drive development costs or unintentionally reduce the number of units possible on a site.
- Expand the scope of plans to end homelessness to include goals for regional housing production and accelerate housing supply at all price points. Existing plans are developed by public and nonprofit agencies that work most directly with homeless populations. At that level, they have been generally well-designed and executed. But given that narrow scope, they are silent about goals and policies that will largely determine the future of homelessness in the region: the production of housing of all kinds and at all price points. Future homelessness reduction strategies would be appropriately scoped if they articulated broad housing production goals. The region would need to hold itself accountable to the goals; prune land-use regulations that don’t serve a clear health, safety, or environmental protection purpose; accelerate permit process timetables; cede regulatory power to the state for some zoning decisions; and explore little-used but promising policies such as land-value or split-rate taxes.
- Leverage the newly created Homeless Research and Action Collaborative (HRAC) to elevate the public debate and strengthen policy responses. This report has outlined the public’s disagreement around the causes of homelessness, as well as the need for more evidence on policy responses. The hope is for this report to advance the policy discussion in a productive direction. Meaningful progress will require sustained effort and focus on the homelessness issue. On that front, the region recently received good vii news. Portland State University (PSU) announced the creation of the HRAC—a center that will provide research on why homelessness exists, evaluate the effectiveness of policy interventions, and uncover innovative approaches to supporting people experiencing homelessness. The center will tap expertise across multiple domains— urban planning, public health, social work, psychology, economics, business—and work in close collaboration with city and county agencies in the region. Activities will include elevating the public debate on homelessness, implementing rigorous evaluations of local programming, and advancing the university’s innovative work with temporary villages, hygiene centers, and more. The HRAC is perfectly positioned to address numerous challenges discussed in this report: inconsistent homeless counts, imperfect resource targeting, and promising-but-not-proven programming.