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Capital Chatter: Oregonians talk about homelessness

The housing crisis has multiple components: a homelessness problem, an affordable housing problem and a workforce housing problem.

"We have a housing crisis in America."

Those are the words of Washington Congressman Denny Heck at the recent Oregon Housing Conference in Portland. They could just as easily have been spoken by any policymaker, renter, potential homebuyer or homeless person in Oregon.

Heck stresses the mantra of "pillow, blanket, roof."

"Unless somebody has a pillow to lay their head down on at night, a blanket to keep them warm and a roof over their head, each other issue in their life is not going to be successfully dealt with, whether it is mental illness or substance abuse or unemployment or whatever it is," Heck told the hundreds of people attending the conference in Portland.

The housing crisis has multiple components: a homelessness problem, an affordable housing problem and a workforce housing problem.

"If you are a teacher or a firefighter in Seattle, just starting, you can't afford to live in Seattle," said Heck, a Democrat who represents Washington's 10th Congressional District. "Market-rate housing availability nowhere meets demand, on average, in this country. It doesn't matter whether it's in a rural area or an urban area.

"Punchline: We're not building anywhere enough housing units to meet the need."

The cost of housing has caused the single-largest increase in U.S. household budgets over the past 15 years. "And we all know wages are not increasing at the same rate as housing costs," he said.

"We need to build more housing units of all kinds for all our neighbors — all our neighbors."

Forty years ago, the U.S. was annually building 12,000 housing units for every million people, according to Heck. Now the rate of housing construction is down to 4,000 units per million.

"We don't build starter homes anymore. In my hometown now of Olympia, you can't turn a shovel of dirt until you pay $41,000 in impact fees – all for good purposes," he said. "But what's the net effect? We're not building.

"And what does that cause to happen? Think about this. If I'm renting and I'm ready to buy a starter unit, whether it's a single-family residence or a condo in a multi-family building, and I can't get in, what do I do? I stay renting.

"What happens if we all stay renting? Occupancies go up.

"What happens if occupancies go up? Rents go up. More people become rent-burdened. More people become eligible and in need of subsidy. And yes, my friends, more people become homeless."

Heck praised the Oregon Legislature for stepping up this year and doing "really great things" on housing.

During a break in the conference, I talked with one of those legislative advocates, state Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, D-Portland, who chairs the Oregon House committee dealing with housing.

She said the annual housing conference is important for bringing people together from around Oregon to share perspectives, problems and solutions they have found on local, state and — perhaps for the first time this year – national levels.

"This problem is everywhere throughout the state, not just an urban problem," Keny-Guyer told me.

"For those who live in Portland and see the tents, that looks very different than places, for instance, in Lakeview where they're up at 5,000 feet elevation and they don't have homeless sleeping on the streets because you either get bitten by mosquitoes during the summer or freeze during the winter. So it looks different. You've got people couch-surfing and in the jails, in the hospitals — that is where the homeless tend to show up.

"I think it's really important for Oregonians to hear that we need to have statewide solutions that impact everyone."

Society now knows that emotional trauma can carry lifelong implications. "Every time someone becomes homeless, they become traumatized," state Rep. Tawna Sanchez, D-Portland, said in opening the conference. "Because a family doesn't have a stable place to live, we traumatize children."

I can't do justice to the inspiring, humbling keynote address by Ed Blackburn, the former executive director of Central City Concern in Portland.

But he said Oregon can substantially reduce chronic homelessness: "What this requires is bringing together systems that are not currently working very well together.

"The health care industry, the behavioral health care world, the homeless world providers, all the funders that are separate — we need to bring them together and we can solve this problem. …

"And we can get people well. If we get people well, they won't circulate back into homelessness. …

"They are out there. They really need us. And we can bring them in.

"Let's get to work."

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Facebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/DickHughes or Twitter.com/DickHughes.