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Family wage jobs are key to homeownership

My View • Portland must roll up its sleeves to bring good jobs to the region

About a year ago, University of Oregon Economics Professor Tim Duy shared some startling information with the Portland Business Alliance board of directors: We learned that metro Portland's wages and per capita income were declining relative to the U.S. average and peer cities.

The alliance board was alarmed by what Professor Duy showed us, so we partnered with some other business associations to dig deeper into the issue. We hired the economics experts at ECONorthwest to take a close look at the Portland-area's economy. ECONorthwest looked at a number of different areas - incomes, wages, unemployment, investment data, human capital and educational attainment and housing - to uncover what was really behind the lagging economic performance of our region (see 'Livability isn't enough to keep Portland ahead,' Jan. 6).

It was this last area - housing - that was critiqued by Tom Cusack in the recent opinion piece 'PBA's housing data: B-O-G-U-S' (Jan. 27) published in the Portland Tribune. He raised some questions about the housing data used in our report, 'A Check-up on the Portland Region's Economic Health.'

While it is clear that Mr. Cusack is very familiar with housing price data and indexes, we feel he didn't see the forest for the trees. What ECONorthwest's analysis showed is that Portland is less affordable than our peer regions because our housing prices are high relative to our incomes, a point Mr. Cusack did not address.

What was of utmost concern to us at the Alliance is this disturbing trend between income levels and housing prices. Relative to peer metro areas, personal income in our region has been declining for more than a decade and now sits below the national average and is 16 percent to 21 percent lower than Seattle, Denver and Minneapolis metros. If you have a low-wage job, which many more people in the region do as compared with our peer regions, homeownership is more difficult to attain.

Additionally, if people in the Portland region are struggling to reach the income levels needed to buy a home, then it should come as no surprise that our income-tax dependent local and state governments are struggling with budget deficits and having to cut funding for public services such as schools and public safety.

By issuing this report, we hoped not only to inform elected leaders as well as the general public about our region's economic health, but also to issue a call to action to move our region forward. That call to action was answered late last month at a Jobs Summit we hosted with more than 140 community, civic and business leaders. At that summit, we came together and agreed on our region's top priority: to regain a vibrant economy that generates healthy, family-wage private sector jobs and sufficient tax revenue to support important public services such as schools, human services and public safety.

We and our public and private sector partners are now working on specific near-term and long-term action items to reach this goal. Education, land use, business climate and tax policy are some of the issue areas we will be working on together to help create more family-wage jobs and boost incomes.

At the end of the day, we, like Mr. Cusack, want housing to be more attainable for more individuals. We believe the way to accomplish that goal is to work on strategies that increase wages and incomes across the board while keeping housing costs in check. That will require coming together, rolling up our sleeves and coming up with creative and collaborative ways to increase the number of higher paying, family-wage jobs in our region.

Sandra McDonough is president and chief executive officer of the Portland Business Alliance. She lives in Hillsdale.