Listen to people describe their search for affordable places to live in greater Portland.
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In other words, greater Portland is missing more affordable homes regionwide than there are homes in the entire city of Gresham (41,000) or Beaverton (39,500).
Rents have risen swiftly in recent years – far faster than renters’ incomes. It has left a widening gap between the number of affordable homes and the number of people who need them.
We all do better when everyone has the opportunity to live in a safe, decent home that they can afford. The benefits of that stability for individuals and families ripple outwards to our entire community, affecting everything from our schools, economy and morning commute.
What could it mean for these families – and greater Portland as a whole – if we found ways to bridge that gap?
Here are five things to know about greater Portland's need for affordable housing:
1) The lowest-income families are facing the brunt of the shortage
Median family income
Median family income varies by family size. For a family of four, the median family income is about $80,000.
Greater Portland has enough homes affordable for people who are moderately low-income, such as a truck driver or an administrative assistant.
But homes that are affordable for a family earning $50,000 per year are not affordable for a family earning $25,000 per year. People with the lowest incomes – those earning less than half the median family income – face a shortfall of about 48,000 homes that are affordable to them. Households in this income range could include a senior depending on a social security, or a preschool teacher or home health aide supporting a family of three.
The shortfall of these deeply affordable homes is an issue for every city and county in our region. Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties each have only about half of the affordable homes they need to meet their residents’ needs. That includes both inexpensive apartments in the private market that do not have rent limits (unregulated housing) and apartments with rent limits (regulated, or protected, housing).
Local housing authorities and developers – either for-profit or not-for-profit – build, own and operate apartments with rent limits. With support from public subsidies, regulated apartments are reserved for low-income individuals and families. But the supply of regulated apartments is not evenly distributed across greater Portland, even though the need for them is widespread.
Inexpensive apartments in the private market make up the lion’s share of the region’s supply of affordable homes. But without public investment, the private market generally can’t produce new units that are affordable to low-income people, and the supply that we have is dwindling.
Unregulated, mid-quality apartments (that tend to be less expensive) are disappearing as landlords sell or upgrade their buildings and subsequently raise rents. These buildings tend to attract higher-paying tenants at the expense of lower-income tenants who are often evicted or priced out.
Research by Seyoung Sung and Dr. Lisa Bates of Portland State University shows that 90 percent of apartment buildings sold between 2006 and 2017 were these modest, less expensive apartments.
Sales of these affordable units are especially common in racially diverse areas, meaning that people of color are disproportionately at risk of losing affordable homes in their communities.
Cheranda Curtis says having a safe and affordable place to live is key to maintaining her sobriety. “To be able to come home and turn off – like when everything is crazy… it has done wonders for me.”
Learn more about Cheranda and others
Apartments with rent limits remain sanctuaries of housing affordability for low-income renters. Public subsidies, either for construction or ongoing operating costs, make it possible for low-income renters to pay a rent that is affordable to them.
Only a small fraction of the region’s supply of affordable homes is protected in this way, however. In Multnomah County, 23 percent of the affordable homes are reserved for people with low incomes; in Clackamas County, only 11 percent are.
2) Housing assistance isn’t getting to the people who need it most
Since the post-Great Depression social programs of the 1930s, the federal government has provided financial assistance to homeowners and low-income renters alike. Each group used to receive roughly the same amount of benefits or incentives through different programs.
But over time that assistance has become unbalanced. The majority of federal assistance now goes to homeowners through tax deductions for homeownership expenses, such as mortgage interest and property taxes. The mortgage interest tax deduction alone is the largest housing subsidy in the nation, giving homeowners about $77 billion dollars in tax savings in 2016.
By comparison, in that same year the federal government spent just a little more than half that amount, $41 billion dollars, on programs that support low-income renters. Despite a growing need, Congress has cut these programs or left their budgets to stagnate for decades.
The result is that each year the pool of available money runs out far sooner than the need is met. Nationwide, only one in four households that qualifies for housing assistance receives it.
Low-income families, the elderly, and people with disabilities receive housing assistance primarily through two different means. They may be able to rent an apartment with rent limits; or they may receive a voucher that helps them bridge the gap between what they can afford and the cost of apartments in the private market.
Waiting lists to get a regulated apartment or a voucher are years long.
In the tri-county area, nearly 11,500 individuals or families are on the waiting lists for regulated housing. That’s more households than there are in the entire city of Tualatin.
People in dire circumstances may receive priority, but most could expect to be waiting anywhere from one to 14 years for an apartment. Imagine parents with an infant having to wait until their child becomes a teenager before they get any rental assistance.
In the tri-county area, more than 6,000 families are on wait lists for Section 8 vouchers. But with insufficient federal funding for new Section 8 vouchers, all three counties – Washington, Multnomah and Clackamas – have had to close their waitlists to new applicants.
Even households lucky enough to receive a voucher may not be able to use it. Section 8 vouchers only cover rent for apartments up to a certain threshold; in some counties, up to 30 percent of the households that receive a voucher were unable to use them because they were unable to secure an apartment under that limit.
This means low-income renters who should receive housing assistance end up seeking housing on the increasingly expensive private market.
3) Communities of color are shouldering too heavy of a burden
It should be possible for full-time workers to afford housing and still have enough money for basic essentials, but the average renter in greater Portland today who works a full 40 hours a week doesn’t make enough to afford a modest studio apartment. Today about half of the region’s renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, which squeezes their budgets for food and other basic essentials.
The condition is worse for working families and others struggling to get by below the poverty line. Almost all renting families in poverty spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. About 60 percent spend more than half.
Due to significant income inequalities, families of color are more likely to spend more than 30 percent, and in some cases even more than half, of their income on rent compared to white families. Black families are even more vulnerable with about 40 percent of them spending more than half of their income on rent.
This is especially concerning because poor families who spend more than half of their income on rent are most at risk of losing their homes. One unexpected event, such as a sick child, a car repair or a rent increase, can be the difference between being home – or being homeless.
More than 40,000 households in our region are one crisis away from an eviction, according to recent data from the Comprehensive Housing Affordability Strategy.
4) Affordable rent can be the difference between being homeless – or being home
Dawn Swan secured a Section 8 housing voucher after being on the waiting list for eight years. Then she had only a short window to find housing. "A couple of months isn't that long, especially when I kept getting denied." Swan said she experienced discrimination for having a history of addiction.
Learn more about Dawn and others
On Jan. 23, 2017, Clackamas County staff and more than a hundred volunteers spoke with people experiencing homelessness across the county as part of the biennial Point-In-Time Count, a nationwide effort that tallies the number of homeless individuals in our communities.
The number one reason people said they were homeless? Unaffordable rent. That was out of a list of 22 contributing factors that included drug or alcohol abuse and mental health issues.
Homelessness has been declining in most of the United States for the past decade, but like other West Coast metropolitan areas with tight housing markets, homelessness in greater Portland has started to tick upwards.
According to the Point-in-Time Counts, 330 people found themselves newly homeless between 2015 and 2017.
Housing experts say the actual number is much higher, because these counts only include people sleeping in shelters and unsheltered persons directly observed by volunteers. They do not include people who are living doubled up with friends or family, staying in motels, or sleeping out of sight.
From law enforcement to sanitation crews to emergency shelter services to emergency room medical treatment, millions of local tax dollars go towards treating the symptoms of homelessness rather than addressing the cause. Homelessness drains our public resources.
By comparison, numerous studies show that programs with housing and supportive services, such as Medicaid and behavioral health support, cost taxpayers significantly less money.
A local study shows that, on average, a formerly homeless person living in supportive housing at the Bud Clark Commons in Portland sees an annual reduction of more than $13,000 in annual Medicaid claims. These savings more than compensate for housing costs at just $11,600 per year.
Investing in affordable homes pays dividends for our community. Decades of research have established connections between having an affordable place to live and essentially every aspect of our life: physical health, mental well-being, access to jobs, children's success in school, and more.
5) A stable home is the foundation of children’s success
Children deserve the opportunity to succeed in school and get a good start to their lives. So much of that opportunity depends on the foundation of a stable place to live.
But more children are finding themselves homeless. Public schools in greater Portland counted nearly 7,600 students who experienced homelessness during the 2016-17 school year. That's enough students to fill more than 100 school buses. Public schools track students whose families are doubling up with friends or relatives and sleeping in motels – forms of homelessness that are not reflected in the Point-in-Time counts.
Homelessness is a major disruption to a child’s normal life, often causing them to change schools (sometimes multiple times in a single year). Students lose about three months of reading and math learning or more each time they switch schools, as well as important connections with friends, teachers and mentors.
Stability is important for the rest of the class, too: a study from Chicago showed that high student turnover slows the pace of learning for the entire class, spending more time on review and setting average academic achievement behind by about one grade level.
Other overlapping factors like race, sexual orientation, or English proficiency compound the difficulties of homelessness for a student, making it even harder for children to succeed in the school system – and harder to break free of the cycle of poverty.
The takeaway: Affordable homes benefit everyone
Listen to people describe their search for affordable places to live in greater Portland.
Go to the Dispatches
When a community chooses to invest in a healthy supply of homes at different levels of affordability, the benefits reverberate far beyond the initial investment.
Benefits for these individuals and families are directly tied to larger benefits for our whole region. We commute on the same roads, go to school together, work under the umbrella of a common economy and breathe the same air. So when families do better, we all do better.
Editor's note: This story has been updated for clarity.
Data disclaimer: Use data with caution. All data sources have limitations in design, methods and analysis. Sources used in the Regional Snapshot include the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and American Housing Survey, PUMS data, CHAS data, homelessness Point-In-Time Counts, Oregon Department of Education student homelessness data, and State of Oregon budget data.
Each of these sources has well-documented shortcomings, particularly undercounting and/or overgeneralizing the experience of communities of color and other historically marginalized groups. Metro is currently working with the Coalition of Communities of Color's Research Justice Center to improve racial equity practices in data gathering, analysis and presentation in housing issues.