10 Things We Learned about Portland’s Housing Crisis

For our latest Real Talk series, we dug into Portland’s housing and homelessness crisis and investigated the ways our community is addressing it. Here’s what we learned:

1. Housing supply is (finally) catching up with demand. Housing construction in Portland slowed to a crawl during the Great Recession just as the region’s population growth took off — and rent prices spiked as a result. But those trends are starting to reverse themselves.

Population growth has slowed since 2016, and a construction boom has helped increase housing supply (and bring down rents) across the city.

With another 11,000 units of housing currently under construction, the short-term forecast is favorable for renters.

2. But the housing affordability crisis is still huge. Even with the rental market cooling off, housing costs are still way higher than a decade ago, and nearly two-thirds of our state’s low-income renters spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing.

So yes, the housing affordability crisis may have stopped getting worse for now — but it hasn’t gone away. The double-digit rent increases of the last decade are still with us, and Portlanders continue to feel the pinch.

3. Private development alone can’t fix the problem. One lesson here is that the private market — even when behaving its best — doesn’t produce housing that’s affordable for all Portlanders.

For people living on disability payments, unemployment insurance, or Social Security checks, even bottom-rung housing has become too expensive in the private market, so the public sector is being asked to step in.

4. We’re building more publicly-subsidized affordable housing units than ever. The city’s production of affordable housing units reached an all-time high last year — and thanks to bond measures approved by voters in 2016 and 2018, that trend is likely to continue. But there’s one hitch…

5. Affordable housing isn’t affordable for everyone. As we discovered this fall, the definition of “affordable housing” is actually pretty loose. For example, a two-bedroom apartment that costs $1,450 per month can qualify as “affordable housing” under the city’s matrix, even though most low-income families couldn’t afford it.

In reality, housing bureaus spend a lot of their money making apartments affordable for families earning $35-40k a year (or about 50 percent of median family income), even though the biggest need is among families making $25,000 or less.

One sign that could be changing: The affordable housing bond that passed last year requires nearly half of all funds to be spent on housing for Portland’s poorest residents — and that’s expected to make 1,600 new units available for families earning less than $25k per year.

6. The homelessness crisis is even bigger than you might think. About 1,700 people in Portland are sleeping on the streets or in their cars — but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. On any given night, another 2,500 people sleep in emergency shelters or transitional housing, and thousands more are couch-surfing and “doubling up” with their friends or family.

The problem also isn’t static. About 32,000 Portlanders currently spend more than half their income on rent, putting them one bad month away from slipping into homelessness — and because bad months happen, many people do.

7. It’s not fair to blame migration. Nearly 600 people move to Portland every week, and a very small number of them are homeless when they get here. But that’s not what’s driving the crisis.

According to the 2017 Point In Time count, most people experiencing homelessness in our city either grew up here or became homeless after arriving, and most of the inbound migration that does occur comes from Portland’s suburbs and other parts of Oregon.

8. The bigger problem is housing costs. The cities with the highest rates of homelessness all have one thing in common — sky-high housing prices. From Portland to Seattle to San Francisco, the lack of affordable housing has put the squeeze on renters and increased the odds that one missed paycheck or medical emergency could lead to eviction.

9. We know what solutions work. In 2017, Multnomah County became the first West Coast community to reduce veteran homelessness to “functional zero,” meaning that more vets are exiting homelessness than entering it and newly homeless vets are being moved off the streets within 90 days.

The county placed 1,200 homeless vets into housing during that two-year period — so it’s not like the problem is unsolvable. Public officials know a lot about what works, but they can’t fix the problem alone…

10. So lots of people are chipping in. Maybe someday the federal government will give cities the funding they need to make universal housing a reality, but until then, it’s going to take a team effort — and lots of Portlanders are already stepping up.

Patt Opdyke and Terrance Moses started a nonprofit that cleans up around homeless encampments. University of Portland senior Jack Padon created a campus organization to get students working on solutions. East Portlander Caleb Coder organized an “Eat and Greet” where neighbors could meet the residents of the new Wy’East homeless shelter.

The list goes on and on — and that, if nothing else, is reason to be hopeful.