June 12, 2024

Whole Community News

From Kalapuya lands in the Willamette watershed

Homeless crisis: We need more housing, less regulation, fair taxes, and you

10 min read
Author Matthew Desmond reveals in his new book that the U.S. gives more write-offs to the rich than benefits to the poor. It would take just one-fifth of the amount of uncollected taxes to lift everyone out of poverty in this country.

From the 2023 Eugene Chamber of Commerce Community Solutions Summit:

[00:00:06] Mike Coughlin: I’m really excited to see this many people here to get up to speed on these issues because as you can tell they’re very complex and they have a huge impact on our community.

[00:00:15] So, first of all, I started working, I was actually president of Metropolitan Affordable Housing about 25 years ago now almost, and that’s Cornerstone Community Housing. And back then, 25 years ago, we had a huge demand for affordable housing in our community and we were working to solve that. And here we are 20-25 years later, and our affordable housing situation is worse than it’s ever been.

[00:00:40] The funding for affordable housing is limited and it’s highly regulatory and competitive. And so one of the things coming out of here today is we’ve got to get more money into affordable housing.

[00:00:54] Affordable housing providers, they deal with the same zoning, regulatory, and neighborhood associations that normal developers deal with. And then they also have a lot of additional state and federal regulations, and so, all that adds up to affordable housing costing about 20 percent more than it does for normal housing, just because of regulatory issues and all the hoops that they have to jump through. Same apartment building, exact same apartment building, 20 percent more expensive. So that’s a lot of money.

[00:01:23] And about two years ago plus, I got involved with the Chamber and I started reading a lot of reports. Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, LA—they’ve spent billions of dollars on this homeless situation, and they’re finding that their homeless counts are not going down, and in fact, the homeless counts are going up. And in fact, in Lane County, in the HMIS data, we’ve got over 10% more people than we had a year ago today. And as was mentioned before, we have one of the highest homeless rates on a per capita basis in the United States. That’s a big problem for our community.

[00:01:58] And again, you heard we’re short thousands of affordable housing units. So it’s just not a few hundred. It’s thousands. We need at least 1,500 in the pipeline per year to even get close.

[00:02:09] And our homeless crisis affects everybody in our community—the police department, the fire department, the parks department, our ER rooms. I’d like to know how many of the ER visits at the University District were homeless related. This problem is too big for us to not do anything.

[00:02:27] The other thing I want to make sure people understand is this is not a short-term problem. We’ve been short of building housing in our community for 20 or 30 years, and it’s going to take 10-20 years if we get after it right now to fill our housing pipeline, which means our homeless problem is not going to go away. You know, this is a long-term problem. And so we need to start thinking about long-term solutions for this problem.

[00:02:52] The other thing is, and this really concerns me is, we had troubles meeting our city budget this year, and I think we’re short $15 million, and we spread it across several agencies to take care of it. But, with this, with our homeless crisis, every year, every budget cycle, we’re going to be strained, and we’re going to be cutting back on other different agencies in our community to fund this, to fund our housing issues.

[00:03:15] And we’ve got a $20-30 million hole of one-time funding that we’re going to start missing pretty soon. And we know that our homeless population is continuing to climb.

[00:03:24] So, the bottom line for me is that we’ve really got to get together as a community and plan for this, I call it a crisis, because in my mind it is a crisis. So, we’re going to need some strong leadership over the next few years to work our way out of this. And it’s going to be a difficult five years, I think, for us to get going.

[00:03:46] I think as far as the business community goes, we’ve got to make sure that we’re stepping in, and that we’ve got really strong leadership in this area, and that we’re supporting our city and county leaders on decisions that they’re going to make to help us get us out, because there’s going to be some tough decisions here.

[00:04:02] We pride ourselves with our land use planning in Oregon for years, and in Eugene, we’ve got land use planning code and we’ve got overlays over the code and we’ve got regulations. In order to get this housing built, we’re going to have to figure out ways to get through some of these issues.

[00:04:17] Pastor Dan Bryant: I served as the pastor at First Christian Church in the heart of Eugene for 29 years. And the year that I left, in 2020, we had served about 22,000 people, mostly unhoused, in that past year—people just coming to a downtown church in desperate search for assistance of one kind or another.

[00:04:39] And I told the congregation when I left to devote full-time to the nonprofit that I’d helped to establish a few years earlier, Square One Villages, I felt like that old story of the community organized around pulling drowning people out of the river, until someone began to walk upstream and someone said, ‘Where are you going? We need you here.’ And that person replied, ‘I’m going upstream to figure out why people are falling into the river.’

[00:05:04] And that’s my story. That’s why I left the church, a work that I deeply loved, is in order to go upstream, to figure out why so many people are drowning.

[00:05:12] And that upstream work of Square One Villages is about to take off big time with the opening of our newest housing project, Peace Village. (I see Dylan Lamar right over here, our architect for that project.) It’s a very unique housing project, unlike any other rental project you’ve ever seen. It’s a limited equity co-op where the residents actually own and operate their housing. And this is the model of housing that we are developing. This will be the largest of its kind in Oregon. And we really believe that this work is going to make a significant difference.

[00:05:45] Well, for me, being involved in this work is about affirming the value of every individual. In religious terms (if you don’t mind): to affirm them as a child of God. In secular terms: to affirm that every individual has a right to housing. And in the words of the Declaration of Independence from Thomas Jefferson: the right to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ Without housing, life is very difficult, liberty is almost nonexistent, and the pursuit of happiness is a distant memory.

[00:06:18] So I was more than glad to join this work of the Chamber to try to figure out as a community, how can we change this story? And what I have learned, over these last 20+ years (almost 30 now, over 30), is that there are three essential components to solving this problem. They are in this order: housing, housing, and housing.

[00:06:41] It really is. If I could wave a magic wand and eliminate all the addiction issues and the mental health problems and all of that, it would have a very minimal impact on the number of people that are unhoused. And this is the real paradox that it’s taken me a long time to understand, that it’s not about the individuals and fixing the individuals. It’s about the systemic problem.

[00:07:06] It really is a case of musical chairs, right? You can help that slow individual get faster to beat out somebody else, but at the end of the day, you still don’t have enough chairs. That’s really the issue. And so that’s why we have to focus on the housing problems.

[00:07:22] So what I wanted people to go away with is a couple of resources.

[00:07:26] One, if you don’t believe me, read this book: Homelessness is a Housing Problem. We were fortunate to talk with one of the authors in our coalition, but that really brings out the data to show why it is a housing issue.

[00:07:41] Secondly, Poverty, by America, by Matthew Desmond, just blew me away. Brand-new book, blew me away. And he really looks at the data in terms of why we have poverty is such a perplexing problem in this program, in this nation. And what he reveals is we give more away in terms of write-offs to the rich than we give in benefits to the poor. It really is quite astounding. He says it would just take $177 billion to lift everyone out of poverty in this country. That’s one-fifth of the amount of uncollected taxes. One-fifth of the amount of uncollected taxes. So the problem can be solved.

[00:08:25] And third, a study that just came out just recently, the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Institute, Homelessness.ucsf.edu (that stands for University of California, San Francisco), you will find the study. That addresses this problem, really good data. So look at that and read that.

[00:08:44] Become a housing advocate. Talk to your elected officials, support organizations like those that are here today, share good info on social media, consider joining a group like OregonHousingAlliance.org that lobbies on statewide issues, because if we rely only on federal funding, guess what? We’re going to be out of luck. So we have to develop stronger sources of funding locally. Portland is a good model that has done this.

[00:09:12] So I want to just close with something I learned in high school in Albany, Oregon. Mr. Hogan was our band director, and he always taught us that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Always made me nervous when he was looking at me playing the saxophone, but at any rate our weakest link in our community is our affordable housing. We will never thrive as a community unless we solve this issue. When thousands of people in our community do not have the most basic of human necessities to survive let alone to thrive as human beings. So, join us in this effort because it is so critical for the benefit of the good of all.

[00:09:56] Kaarin Knudson: Hi everyone, Kaarin Knudson. I got involved because our housing market is a mess. And I am an architect and an educator and also a parent and I think I saw that mess from a unique perspective.

2016 is really when I started to get very involved in working on our housing crisis. I saw and heard from a lot of people the concerns that were in the community, the frustration people felt, the sadness that people felt, the heartbreak that goes along with a structural crisis like the one that we face, and it felt like also what was needed was a collective impact model.

And you all have heard this term, some of you might know it quite well: A collective impact effort begins with understanding that the challenge is far too great for any one area of expertise to address, that it’s actually not possible for just one gorilla, doesn’t matter which one, to tackle the whole problem. It needs everyone working on the problem and putting their energies towards that.

[00:10:43] And that’s the work that led to the creation of Better Housing Together, which is an independent nonprofit, but also the hub of a collective impact model. And the mission of Better Housing Together is to work collaboratively to increase housing affordability, diversity, and supply in Lane County. And we now have 50 local businesses and organizations, transpartisan, multidisciplinary across all aspects of our community.

[00:11:10] Better Housing Together has worked on the creation of the City of Eugene’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, now funded by both a line item within our city budget, and the construction excise tax that is in place in our community. So it’s a diversified fund that will help for that resource to be continuous in our community, through sort of hot economies and lulls, right? You can’t only fund your response for affordable housing with something that’s only available when a lot of things are being built.

[00:11:38] We also worked on Lane County’s first Affordable Housing Action Plan, and we’ve worked very intensively over the past couple of years to do some of that restructuring of our regulatory environment to allow for us to build the solutions that we need, and that’s the middle housing codes, those new ordinances that allow us to build more affordability by design, allow for us to create a wider diversity of housing types through our typical production processes, with as little complexity as possible, which means those are going to be the lowest cost units possible coming into the market.

[00:12:09] We have done things in the past six years that many people had said were absolutely impossible. What we’ve seen Oregon do and what we’ve seen Eugene do is lead nationally in a conversation about housing affordability and diversity and supply being an integrated concern.

[00:12:25] Progress is possible. That’s what people need to always understand as we are tackling these very large challenges, that we need to be strategic; we need to hold ourselves accountable; we need to focus on effectiveness; we need to be compassionate with each other, and certainly with the people who are experiencing the greatest harm within this crisis; but we absolutely can make progress. It is possible for us to do that when we align our efforts and work collaboratively towards the same end.

[00:12:55] …And I guess one of my asks of you would be to think about the unique perspective that you bring to understanding this challenge we face as a community, and to think about what particular skills and talents or resources that you have that you could bring to bear in helping us to address this crisis.

[00:13:12] John Q: From the 2023 Eugene Chamber of Commerce Community Solutions Summit: A call for less regulation, for more equitable distribution of tax dollars, and a request of you—that you bring your time and talents to this community collaboration. The next few years will be critical.

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