Opinion
February 01, 2019

How Data Can Lead Toward Long-term Solutions for Oregon’s Housing Crisis

By: Melissa Freeman, MPH
Director, Strategic Projects

Nobody disagrees that we have a housing crisis. As rental and home prices increase, too many people struggle to earn enough to comfortably pay rent and stay housed. Today, one in three Oregonians pay more than a third of their income on housing and utilities — just one medical crisis or layoff away from homelessness. Last year, Portlanders ranked “shelter for people who are homeless” as the second most urgent issue to address. Cost of housing ranked first.

State and local governments, nonprofits, social service agencies and the private sector have been working valiantly to help homeless Oregonians and those at risk of homelessness. Because of their work, incidence of homelessness is actually down in the region and stable in Multnomah County.

But the larger housing crisis simply overwhelms innovative efforts of those working to solve it. The Portland metro region has never experienced a housing crisis of these proportions, and because the crisis has moved so fast, it has been challenging to test, develop and scale proven, data-driven policy and programmatic solutions.

Recently, OCF commissioned research firm ECONW to examine root causes of homelessness and links to the larger housing crisis. The report, “Homelessness in the Portland Region,” provides a framework for considering long term solutions to this challenge.

The report clearly illustrates how the homelessness dilemma is the result of two entwined and converging crises: an inadequate housing supply leaving tens of thousands of Oregon children and families at risk of becoming homeless; and a smaller, but highly visible population of chronically homeless people experiencing challenging personal circumstances (mental health, illnesses, physical disabilities and substance abuse) contributing to their homelessness.

By surveying data and looking at various local and national policy and programmatic approaches to housing affordability and homelessness, ECONW identifies clear next steps for policymakers to consider and investments to make. Four key policy areas, which if tackled collaboratively by governments, the private sector, philanthropy and social service sector, could provide a comprehensive framework for successfully addressing housing and homelessness:

  • Broadly increase supply of market rate and affordable housing.
  • Provide additional rent subsidies to people at risk of homelessness.
  • Intervene with additional supporting housing and wrap around services for chronically homeless.
  • Increase shelter capacity for those already homeless.

OCF is now funding a companion report analyzing statewide trends to help people understand how the market can help address the challenge. Homelessness is not a personal choice for most. Streamlining barriers at both state and local levels for housing construction will allow private markets to play a quicker and more effective role in addressing this crisis. We will identify ways philanthropy can leverage important investments and government policy decisions to increase housing production more quickly and improve housing conditions for children and families. 

Solving a crisis like this one — of a scale, duration and reach not seen here before — requires more than just good data. It requires collaboration by a range of actors: public and nonprofit agencies and private sector entities that work on homeless issues and those that delve into broader housing and land-use regulatory policies; federal partners willing to invest in rental assistance; state policymakers who can address state housing policy; universities leading in policy innovation, and business leaders providing leadership and a clear voice about the importance of affordable housing as a critical element to our local economy and to our ability to grow.

As the state’s largest foundation, with thousands of engaged donors, OCF is focused on closing the opportunity gap for Oregon’s children and families. Our investments in early childhood education, K-12 reforms and children’s dental health are all negatively impacted by a crisis leaving families homeless or near homeless. We hope the release of a new statewide analysis on homelessness will inspire greater commitment and collaboration from all players to address the issue and take on policy and political challenges ahead.