Is Universal Housing Possible in Portland? Probably Not Without Uncle Sam

We’re picking up our series on housing and homelessness today with another question: What would it take to provide universal housing in Portland? And how much would it cost?

We’ve written before about Multnomah County’s efforts to end homelessness for veterans (which it’s really close to doing), and learned that the biggest hurdle left to clear is prevention — or in other words, keeping people who are housed today from becoming homeless tomorrow.

The fundamental challenge is that thousands of Portlanders are only one medical emergency or missed paycheck away from not being able to pay their rent. And because medical emergencies and missed paychecks happen, new people are slipping into homelessness all the time.

So what’s the fix? Policy experts will tell you there’s no single solution, and that we need to focus on the many small-but-important partial fixes that are within reach.

But gosh darn it, we’re in the mood to dream a little, so today we’re going to talk about a big, sweeping, pie-in-the-sky idea to end homelessness: universal housing vouchers.

The federal government already has a voucher program that helps some low-income renters afford housing in the private market, so the logic behind universal vouchers is pretty straight-forward: Let’s provide that aid to everyone who needs it.

One well-known supporter of this idea is Matthew Desmond, a Princeton sociologist who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.

In his book, Desmond argues that universal house vouchers would “change the face of poverty in this country” and effectively end homelessness. But it wouldn’t come cheap.

Economists estimate we’d need to spend an additional $41 billion per year to fund vouchers for every American who’s currently eligible.

And in the Portland area alone, our back-of-the-napkin math suggests the annual price tag could easily surpass $300 million.

One idea for funding universal vouchers is actually pretty simple. As Daniel Hertz explains in CityLab, all we’d have to do is repeal the mortgage interest deduction — a $68 billion tax subsidy that primarily benefits wealthy homeowners — and use the savings to give vouchers to low- and middle-income renters. Problem solved.

But here’s the hitch: The mortgage interest deduction is really popular. Polls consistently show that a majority of Republicans and Democrats support keeping the tax break, despite the fact that about 75 percent of its benefits go to the richest 25 percent of Americans.

We talked to one local policy guru who thinks repealing the mortgage interest deduction is so unrealistic that it’s irresponsible to even discuss it as a solution. She might be right, but there’s at least one reason to think she could be wrong, and oddly enough that reason has Donald Trump’s signature on it.

Long story short, the tax bill that Donald Trump signed last December is expected to dramatically reduce the number of Americans who claim the mortgage interest deduction on their taxes, because the standard deduction has doubled in size, making it a more attractive option. (The Atlantic has a great analysis if you want the nitty-gritty details.)

As a result, only the richest homeowners are expected to continue taking advantage of the mortgage interest deduction, and that could make it easier to repeal if progressives retake control of Congress and the White House in 2020.

As an olive branch to our policy guru friend, we should point out that nothing about this grand vision is certain, or even likely. Progressives might not win in 2020, and even if they do, they could choose to prioritize something other than affordable housing, or decide that universal vouchers aren’t the best policy option. The reality is that solutions to our city’s housing crisis will probably have to be hatched here at home.