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Housing costs hit low-income households

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Washington County official: Build more units, provide short-term help.


Record-low vacancy rates, rising rents and a shortage of housing for lower-income people have combined to keep homelessness atop the public issues facing Washington County.

“We are developing market-rate housing to meet many of the needs of employees in the business sector,” said Annette Evans, homeless program coordinator for the county.

“But our aging population and people doing low-income sector jobs need a place to stay, too.

“We need to figure out how to develop affordable housing for the working poor, people who are older, on fixed incomes, have a disability, veterans, and others who need permanent supportive housing but do not have the income to be able to pay market-rate housing.”

Evans spoke at a luncheon Monday (Feb. 22) of the Washington County Public Affairs Forum.

She said the county is 14,000 units short of housing affordable by households with less than 50 percent of annual median income — half the households being above the mark and half below. For a one-person household, the 50 percent level amounts to $25,750 per year; for a four-person household, $36,750 per year.

Meanwhile, vacancy rates that once ranged from 5 to 7 percent have dropped to as little as 1.6 percent in Hillsboro.

“That means there are hardly any units out there,” Evans said.

So people are forced to live elsewhere and their commuting adds to traffic.

About one in four county households now pays at least 30 percent of income on housing.

According to a state Employment Department analysis Evans mentioned, 40 percent of county jobs are either low-wage or part-time, which fail to generate enough on their own for people to meet growing housing costs.

“That gap (in affordable housing) has grown every year that our consolidated plan has been updated, and gets bigger,” Evans said.

Some gains made

The plan she referred to is “A Road Home,” which county commissioners adopted in 2008 with a 10-year goal of eliminating homelessness.

The plan has resulted in about $6 million spent annually in the county to cope with homelessness — $1 million from the county, including money from a five-year public safety levy that voters renewed last November; $3 million in federal money earmarked for shelters, and $2 million from various public and private sources.

“I knew we could do much better” than the $500,000 the county was drawing, Evans said.

Evans said the money helped fill 1,885 available beds in 2015, up from 1,626 in 2013. Still, 652 were turned away because shelter was unavailable.

The startup two years ago of Community Connect — a one-stop, single-call center — has enabled a network of agencies to keep all available beds filled. The number is (503) 640-3263.

Still, she said, the three shelters in Hillsboro and Tigard have room just for families with children, and there is a shelter for youths under age 19.

Yet according to 1,043 households that completed assessments for Community Connect in 2015 — of a total of 1,911 that sought assistance — 48 percent consisted of a single person, and 8 percent had two adults with no children.

“We know we’ve got to do a better job of how we address that gap,” Evans said.

Of those households, 49 percent had someone with a criminal history, 35 percent had someone who fled or experienced domestic violence, 27 percent owed their landlords – at an average of $3,000 – and 5 percent had someone age 62 or older.

The latter category, Evans said, is the fastest growing and the most difficult to serve.

“They are not going to be able to get a job at 40 hours a week and try to raise enough income to keep up with growing rents,” she said.

More for assistance

Evans said many of those people would be better served if they got more in rental assistance, particularly if they face evictions. Such assistance amounts to $11 a day per household, compared with shelter costs of $61 a day per person.

“It makes much more economic and humanitarian sense to invest in letting them stay in housing, rather than develop more shelters,” Evans said.

“Shelters do not end homelessness. While you are there, you are still homeless. Our focus is to begin working with families earlier and get them re-housed. With preventive rent assistance of one to nine months, we know we’ve got time to work with people who are being displaced and get them into something much more affordable.”

In response to someone who questioned current efforts, Evans said homelessness is everybody’s problem – and finding a home can turn around someone’s life.

Evans said she had experience with a homeless person – an uncle who was shunned by everyone else except her mother, who came from a family with 16 children.

“He came to my mom’s dairy farm and she said she would put him up and help him get his life back,” Evans recalled. “She did that. He moved into housing and was a successful person until he died of cancer at age 52.”

pwong@pamplinmedia.com

twitter.com/capitolwong

The numbers

Washington County advocates are awaiting results of their 2016 count of homeless people that took place on Jan. 25.

But according to a 2015 count, 591 people from 424 households were tallied as homeless — living on the streets, in their vehicles, or in shelters and transitional housing. That number is up 39 percent from 2013.

Homeless program coordinator Annette Evans said based on experience, the number tallied in a one-night count is only half of the likely total.

Among them were 77 military veterans, 13 youths under 18, and 128 people considered “chronically” homeless — without a home for more than one year, homeless four times in the past three years, or with a physical or mental disability that was a barrier toward securing housing.

Evans said all of them were interviewed.

Such counts are required for local agencies to obtain federal money under a law originally passed in 1987 and renewed most recently in 2009.

The totals exclude those challenging evictions by their landlords in court — the number has dropped from a peak of 4,222 to 2,736 in 2015 — students who were homeless at least part of the year, and survivors of domestic violence.

A total of 2,141 students went homeless in Washington County in 2014-15, according to the Oregon Department of Education. About two-thirds of them (1,380) were from Beaverton schools, which have led the state for the past six years.

Lisa Mentesana, homeless liaison program specialist for the Beaverton district, said homeless families with children often have to be sent to emergency shelters elsewhere in bad weather because there are none in Beaverton itself.

“I agree that we need to place people in stable housing,” she said. “But we still need that emergency shelter system just to stabilize them until we can figure out a plan.”

— Peter Wong