Nick's Plan to Address Our Housing and Homelessness Crises

Every Oregonian knows we face a housing crisis. Some 22,000 children are homeless in our state, rents soared 29 percent last year in Portland alone, and we have the second highest rate of unsheltered homelessness in the country.

That’s one reason addressing this crisis is my top priority as governor. But it’s also personal, because I’ve had too many friends who were homeless or are presently homeless. I was particularly shaken by the experience of an old school friend, Stacey, a former cheerleader and star basketball player. Stacey wrestled with alcoholism and was living in a tent in a park in McMinnville when she froze to death one winter night. That seared me: How could that have happened to Stacey, and how could we have let it happen to Stacey? 

Today, there are thousands of Staceys in every corner of our state: people dying, unhoused, on our streets. It’s a humanitarian crisis too big for any one city, county, or community to confront alone. It is a statewide emergency. 

The issue is not only the many who are homeless but also the hundreds of thousands of Oregonians who struggle to afford rents that are among the country’s highest. Soaring housing prices are dragging down the economy, making it difficult for businesses to find workers and schools to find teachers, and they are also destroying dreams of upward mobility.

Our housing crisis is decades in the making and shaped by income inequality, supply shortages, failed policies on mental health and addiction, profound racial inequity, and lack of education and opportunity for too many people left behind. Sometimes Oregonians feel a fatalism or sense of inevitability about the problem, but in fact many jurisdictions around the country have shown paths forward. Progress isn’t easy, but we can do far better.

 

Tackling our homelessness crisis will require three things our state has lacked: 

  1. Leadership that shows a fierce urgency to act immediately.
  2. Leadership and vision that relies on a comprehensive plan based on the best evidence of what has worked. 
  3. Leadership that follows through and focuses on accountability to ensure that promises made in the headlines translate to outcomes in our communities.

To ensure homelessness becomes rare and brief, my administration will build a comprehensive housing solution built on these pillars:  

 

State government must lead, and the governor must use the convening power and bully pulpit of the office to bring the public along on an all-hands-on-deck process to address the housing crisis. Efforts are now divided among too many state agencies, without clear accountability.

 

  1. Appoint a top official to oversee efforts to address the crisis. To get action and coordination, we need a top official who lives and breathes these issues, who speaks daily to the governor, who can lead collaboration and accountability across agencies and better leverage all resources.
  2. Hold a summit to get everyone on board. Within 45 days of taking office, I will convene an emergency housing summit to bring together state and federal officials, local elected leaders, community representatives, housing advocates, business executives, policy researchers and people who have lived experience with homelessness. The summit will be about hammering out a path forward, bringing everyone on board from state agencies to local groups, and making clear that this is our state’s top priority.
  3. Make data informed decisions. Ending homelessness starts by seeing it clearly. We can’t do that when communities rely on a once-every-two-years count of who is homeless. We need real-time data, and we will seek foundation support for randomized controlled trials to collect evidence on what approaches are most cost-effective and humane in reducing homelessness.

 

Housing must be IMMEDIATE. When people become homeless, they need a place to go tonight. We will help communities invest in emergency and transitional housing that will provide people with a short-term place to live while caseworkers are working to help them find permanent homes.

Increase emergency housing. Last year, Oregon added almost 900 beds/units of emergency housing across 13 Oregon counties, but the demand far outstrips the supply. We can do more to convert motels and hotels to shelters, to create tiny home villages, safe rest villages and pod villages. We can offer safe parking areas with toilets and showers for those living in vehicles. The state can provide land where necessary, and can use the convening power of the governor’s office to build public-private partnerships and raise philanthropic funding to help provide such housing. We have models such as SquareOne Villages and Conestoga Huts in Eugene, or the pod cluster in The Dalles, that can be scaled and replicated.

Oregon has been caught in a debate between those who focus on permanent housing and those who favor emergency housing. In truth, it’s a false choice. We need both. We need everything. And while the costs of investing in shelters aren’t negligible, anybody who thinks they are unaffordable doesn’t understand the costs of homelessness to individuals and to the community. The aim is a system of emergency shelter sufficient to house every homeless Oregonian every night, until we can find them the permanent housing they need and deserve.

People are also complicated, as are their needs. We need to pursue a housing first model that includes people still struggling with drugs or alcohol, and we need to be able to accommodate those with a pet or partner. We must be able to accommodate adolescents, survivors of domestic violence and those whose native language is not English, or we’ll end up leaving people unsheltered on the streets.

My administration will also devote more state staff to help local authorities secure federal grants; it is incredibly frustrating that only 23 municipalities nationwide requested funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for hotel reimbursement for homeless residents when the pandemic struck. I will make sure that we don’t leave federal dollars on the table for lack of grant-writing capacity.

The pandemic-induced shift to remote work offers an opportunity to convert unused work spaces into apartments and efficiency studios. Where a community has trouble finding a publicly owned location for emergency housing, the state may be able to offer state land in the community. We will immediately inventory all state real estate holdings to identify buildings and vacant lands that may be repurposed as transitional housing.

As I talk with Oregonians who are on the frontline of helping our unhoused neighbors, I am inspired by community-driven innovative approaches like tiny homes, prefab construction and redeployment of unused spaces. As governor, I will work to scale up proven pilot programs quickly and efficiently, sometimes by recruiting foundation or public-private partnership support and sometimes with direct state support.

 

Housing must be PLENTIFUL. For years, Oregon has lagged in building new housing units, so that the state is short about 140,000 housing units today. Oregon’s vacancy rate is the lowest in the country, and that’s a huge reason rents are soaring and people are unhoused.

People sometimes think that the main driver of homelessness is personal behavior and circumstances, but researchers have found that the biggest factor is simply the cost of housing. Looking from state to state, the biggest factor explaining variation in homelessness isn’t addiction or unemployment, but the cost of rent. One study found that a 10 percent increase in rent leads to a 13.6 percent increase in homelessness. And rents are driven up by lack of supply of housing, so our challenge in Oregon is to produce more housing so that rents become more affordable and people can find housing. Oregon needs to build almost 30,000 units a year over the next 20 years or our homelessness and affordability problems will get steadily worse.

There is no single solution to spur housing production, but there are many. One approach is to reduce bureaucratic impediments around permitting that are particularly onerous in Oregon and add to the costs of construction; we can explore one-stop shops for permitting, unified permitting systems, permitting off architectural or construction plans with spot checks afterward, and similar approaches. Similarly, Oregon passed legislation to help incentivize a homeshare system, but counties never put into practice around the state; it can and should be redesigned so that it actually creates home shares.

We can also make it easier for homeowners to put accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in their backyards or, even cheaper, rent out a basement flat. Oregon has an unusually old housing stock, and many homes did have a separate basement unit that in the 1960s was rented out for a bit of extra income. We can encourage homeowners to do the same again, but that may mean providing renters insurance to reassure homeowners that they will not suffer damage, or providing interest-free loans for homeowners who wish to add an outside door or wall off a basement flat. We have approximately 1.5 million unused bedrooms in this state — even 1 percent of those, as flats, would represent a significant increase in housing stock. And that’s what Oregon desperately needs. None of this will be easy, and nothing will work perfectly, but we must try harder to get a roof over every Oregonian’s head.

We must support a range of smart, innovative ideas to solve Oregon’s housing crisis. For example, in John Day, a new pilot program creates affordable housing made by 3D printers — part of a revolution in homebuilding technologies around the country. Not only do these homes provide much-needed affordable options for an isolated rural community, the project intends to collaborate with local high school students for help with the design process. Leveraging one community need (increased housing) with another (hands-on job training for students) is the kind of forward-thinking, holistic approach Oregon should explore to reach our goals.

 

Housing must be AFFORDABLE. This starts with identifying specific financial obstacles that make it difficult or impossible for people to find, secure and retain housing. For example, I’ve talked with people who are stuck in expensive motels because they can’t afford security deposits to get into apartments that would actually be cheaper by the month. Researchers have shown how reducing these frictions can get more people into housing.

  1. We must also work harder at preventing evictions, for that helps both landlords and tenants while preventing homelessness. Moreover, when people have an eviction, their credit is ruined and they find it very difficult to rent another apartment, sometimes locking them into homelessness. Emergency programs to prevent evictions include landlord-tenant mediation programs, housing navigators, and eviction prevention support. These programs will keep many Oregonians out of court and will ultimately help keep people housed and secure. 

 

Housing must be SUPPORTIVE. Homelessness is also affected by our broken behavioral health system, and we must do a much better job helping people struggling with mental illness and addiction. Mental Health America ranks Oregon’s mental health system 49th in the nation, reflecting both our relatively high prevalence of mental illness and our lower rates of access to care. Providers say that the pandemic has brought our state’s mental health treatment system to the brink of collapse, and the state lost 150 beds for addiction treatment last year. We also need to expand proven models of delivering care, such as Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics (CCBHCs), that will provide a comprehensive range of mental health and substance use disorder services, including family support programs.

 

We must make substance abuse treatment available to every Oregonian who needs it. As governor, I’ll make sure Oregon’s share of national opioid settlement money is distributed swiftly and effectively so our communities and providers feel the impact immediately. But this is just a start. We need to secure ongoing funding and support workforce development to recruit, train and support the social workers, case managers, and peer support specialists who comprise the network of support necessary to help people see their way through recovery.

For homelessness as well as for mental health and addiction, we must do a better job providing caseworkers and housing navigators for all who need those services. This is a model that has worked well in other jurisdictions. Sometimes caseworkers identify an income stream — veterans benefits, or disability — and help a client apply for it so as to be able to afford housing. Sometimes the caseworker helps a client connect to a family member who can provide housing or who can encourage the person to seek addiction treatment or take medication. Or the navigator can help a person obtain the documents they need and apply for a shelter or for permanent housing.

Counseling has been impaired by a staffing crisis, with many people burning out and leaving for other jobs. But we should recognize that these caseworkers wear capes. They do heroic work on the front lines of the struggle against homelessness, and they deserve adequate compensation for their work — which would also help ease the staffing crisis and ensure that our unhoused neighbors get the support they need.

 

Finally, we must focus on preventing homelessness. To those politicians who say that addressing root causes is too hard, that addressing income inequality and housing affordability is hard, I say it is not only kinder but also wiser to help Oregonians before the fact, rather than after: A person experiencing long-term homelessness costs public systems almost $40,000 a year while the average cost of supportive housing in the Portland Metro area is about half that.

In looking back at some of my friends who became homeless, it seems they were on a trajectory toward difficulties from the time they were traumatized and neglected in childhood, to the years when they missed out on early childhood interventions, to the elementary years when they never learned to read, to the time when they dropped out of high school, and so on. Taxpayers spent large sums incarcerating them but never invested adequately in their education, in their job training, in their economic opportunity.

So most of all, I want to make Oregon the leader in economic opportunity, in ensuring that every one of us has what we need to build a better future for ourselves. If today’s children can get necessary support, a solid education and good jobs, then Oregonians a generation from now won’t have to wrestle with homelessness policy to the same degree.

A final thought on a governor’s role in addressing the housing crisis: In part it’s about finding innovative strategies and allocating resources effectively, but most of all it’s about vision and leadership. It’s about a governor pushing back at the narrative that unhoused neighbors are simply the “undeserving poor” who have shown no “personal responsibility” and reap what they have sown; instead, it’s about leading public opinion and showing that there are more humane and effective approaches that leave us all better off. It’s also about reminding the public that while homelessness is a tough and complicated problem, other jurisdictions have made progress and we can too. We know that we as a state can do better, and all of us will be better off if we tackle this problem instead of run from it.

 

As I implement this plan, I will have a keen focus on these communities and issues:

  • Prioritize ending children’s homelessness. Oregon’s children must have the opportunity to learn and grow in safe, stable environments. Currently, 1 in 5 – more than 134,000 – Oregon children live in poverty. We must invest more resources to help families stay in their homes.
  • Expand programs to protect survivors of domestic violence from homelessness. Domestic violence is the single greatest driver of homelessness for women in Oregon. No one should ever feel trapped between violence and the streets.
  • Provide leadership and support to the hardest hit communities. The affordability and homeless crisis is hurting Oregonians in every corner of the state but some communities, whether they are dense in population or rural, are grappling with an untenable situation. The state can and must do more to provide emergency assistance, resources, and leadership at times of heightened need.
  • Dramatically increase access to mental health and addictions treatment. Individuals and their families, as well as our communities are suffering due to a lack of access to care. New investments in treatment must swiftly translate into increased capacity at the community level across the state.
  • Focus on equity and lead with race. People in communities disproportionately impacted by homelessness must have a leadership role in shaping programs and services. When we directly address the barriers people of color face, we also remove barriers from other disadvantaged groups and create solutions that work for everyone.
Nicholas Kristof with his wife Nick with his dog

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