HH Column: The Real Story; Dirk Knudsen, Editor
The crisis of homelessness burns on here in Hillsboro and all surrounding cities. With warmer weather, the visibility of those without immediate housing has become an embarrassment to most cities in the Portland-Metro area, and our fine city is no exception. Camps are popping up again all over the city. There have been more interactions in places like TV Highway / Sunset Esplanade, Cornelius Pass and Baseline, West Hillsboro, and historic Downtown. Except for some more protected areas of our City, the problems seem to be everywhere.
We all have an opinion about this part of our population and what causes it. Drugs, mental health issues, laziness, and “they want to be homeless” all pepper conversations around this age-old problem. But one argument always seems to be discounted by a certain group of our citizens, which is the one involving access to housing. It makes sense that our housing crisis and lack of it have played a huge role. But a recent study is lending some very scientific credence to the idea that less housing equals more homeless supposition.
In the new study and adjunct book Homelessness Is A Housing Problem, authors Gregg Colburn & Clayton Page Aldern were able to prove that lack of housing is the root cause.
Using accessible statistics, the researchers test a range of conventional beliefs about what drives the prevalence of homelessness in a given city—including mental illness, drug use, poverty, weather, generosity of public assistance, and low-income mobility—and find that none explain why, for example, rates are so much higher in Seattle than in Chicago. Instead, housing market conditions, such as the cost and availability of rental housing, offer a more convincing explanation. You can read more here: https://homelessnesshousingproblem.com/
I have been in the real estate and construction business for 40 years. It has never been a question in my mind, nor in the mind of most of my contemporaries, that housing and the lack of it is the root cause of the homeless issue. It is not even in my atmosphere, nor in that of anyone living and functioning in the real world, that there is any other primary cause. So this study does not surprise me. It is sad that we even need scientists and data experts like this to make the obvious a fact, but thank God they did it. For those of you living in your beautiful homes and looking down your nose at those less fortunate than you as being drug addicts or mental cases, think again.
HOUSING-RELATED FACTORS PREDICT RATES OF HOMELESSNESS
Over the course of the book, the researchers illustrate how absolute rent levels and rental vacancy rates are associated with regional rates of homelessness. Many other common explanations—drug use, mental illness, poverty, or local political context—fail to account for regional variation.
Portland, Oregon is specifically pointed out in the study as the City has one of the highest average rents in the Nation at $1,700 per month. Well, what if I told you that today Hillsboro has an average rent of $1,865? Would it follow that our city would have Portland-like problems that are growing even worse? Yes, it would. Unless you are one of those, who remain convinced that homelessness is a choice and the fault of the person suffering from it.
The Herald has written about 20 stories about the homeless crisis here in greater Hillsboro– you can have a look at them here. Here are some crucial steps that I feel will move the needle in Hillsboro and could happen fairly quickly.
- I have advocated for years for a city shelter. We do not have one yet, but it is in the works at NE 17th to the West of Winco on TV HIghway. That will help with the day-to-day emergencies and get some folks in off the streets. We will need more than one, and the money is now available to make that happen, thanks to the Metro Affordable Housing & Supportive Services Tax. Read More Here- This is step #1. We have to stop letting people camp in squalor and filth and provide them options so we can help stem that tide and step up into a better form of housing- any form of housing.
- The next step up is perhaps a Pallet Shelter community where folks could move out of a shelter and into a tiny shed-like home- this has proven highly successful as an affordable and scalable option to help people move into a better situation as they seek help to the next level. Read more here.
- The Housing Hillsboro code changes that seek to free up infill development are all done now and in the code books. It will allow cottages, townhomes, and 3 and 4 plexes on many lots in town with room to add units. Having said that, the Planning Commission and City Council imposed strict development requirements, making this potential option a no-go for most builders and developers. It will be even harder for homeowners to add units. In my humble opinion, construction costs, rising interest rates, massive site improvement costs, and lack of infrastructure will limit these options to a handful of new homes. That can change with some waivers of SDC charges and other incentives like easing up on required infrastructure requirements.
- Permit Fees as they exist in Hillsboro are structured to prevent infill. For me to add two cottages of 500 SF each at my home, I would need to pay $50,000 each for permits. That is the same cost I would pay for a 4,000 SF custom home! This is a form of institutional red lining or discrimination that simply means the possibility of getting meaningful smaller housing options is unlikely. Permits should be based on a per square foot pro rata and waived for anyone building a smaller scale infill until we catch up on housing.
- The Urban Growth Boundary, which we have lived with since the late 1970s, has served a purpose, and it is all I have ever known. It was designed to limit sprawl and keep people near transportation and city services. The overarching goal has been to preserve farmland. Maybe that has happened, but most farms are now hobby farms and playgrounds for the rich and famous who have llamas, vineyards, and mansion-laced fiefdoms. Good for them, but bad for the average Joe and Jane. METRO has stewarded the UGB and all Regional planning issues for almost five decades. Bottom line and honest truth? They have failed and done so in spectacular fashion. I certainly do not want the UGB gone now; to do that would collapse the housing market. We need to bend and flex it and negotiate with land owners who want into the boundary. When the line moves over their farmland or acreage, they get up to a 1000% increase in value. To have more than $800K homes built on those lands only adds to the problems. So maybe we add land in a way to make sure housing gets built that matches the budget of our average wage earners.
We need more housing and are decades behind. But at this point, this is such a political mess and swamp of rules and regulations we may never solve this. There are a lot of people who see Hillsboro as the next Lake Oswego. Spending $40 Million on upgrades at the baseball stadium, $120 Million on our city-owned internet company, and even more money on tax giveaways to any corporation that wants to be paid to move to Hillsboro are all examples of a misdirected set of priorities.
The great psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote his famous Hierarchy Of Needs in 1943. In it, he makes a compelling case that no human can progress toward anything until their physiological needs are met. Chief among those are food and shelter. To wrap today’s column up, let us face the undeniable truth that we as a community have allowed a situation to occur in which many of our citizens are without housing and even more are without appropriate housing. Those without a home and on the street have nowhere that we as a city can offer them to sleep tonight. That has to change fast. Even more people are sleeping two and three to a room or paying up to $1,000 for a bedroom in a shared home. Others pay $2,000 for a studio in Orenco or a 1 BR in Tanasbourne. We as a city do not allow camping, we do not allow tiny homes or trailers, and we do not want to waive permits or offer housing credits or tax waivers to those who can help by adding homes quickly. Section 8 projects take forever, and because they are built with Regional money, they are opened up to people from Portland and beyond.
I am Hillsboro first all the time. We can not solve the problems from outside of our city boundaries. We must start at home and get as aggressive with housing and the creation of it as we have with bringing all the jobs we have here. We should not encourage any more job creation, in my opinion, here in Hillsboro unless we are willing to equally address housing.
The new study is correct. Lack of housing leads to homelessness. That leads to more drug use and more mental illness. That leads to more abhorrent behavior, which has been unleashed upon our city this year in the worst possible ways. I will continue to ask and beg City Hall to offer housing incentives, reductions, and waivers to fees and permit costs and to be more flexible on barriers to housing development. Together we can make a dent in this housing problem, but things are not getting better with what we have been doing.
Time for something better.