Opinion: It’s time for a statewide rental voucher program

Posted Nov 03, 2019
Mark Graves/Staff from The Oregonian
An apartment for rent in Southeast Portland on April 23, 2014.

A rental apartment

By Guest Columnist

Susheela Jayapal

Jayapal is the Multnomah County commissioner for District 2.

Imagine living in a van on Northeast 33rd Avenue, because there isn’t a bed at a shelter, with nowhere to shower or brush your teeth before work or before you take your children to school.

Imagine being a senior living on Social Security, or with a disability, and struggling to pay for food, rent, prescriptions and bus passes on less than $800 a month in fixed federal benefits.

This is a daily reality for too many people in our community. It’s created by one simple fact: They can’t afford the rent. According a New York Times story based on Census Bureau data, rents jumped more than 30 percent in Portland since 2011. And rents have stayed up — while wages for low-income workers and federal benefits for seniors and people with disabilities have stagnated.

It’s time for a statewide rental voucher program.

For decades, the federal government played a crucial role in preventing homelessness. Federal rent vouchers helped make housing affordable by subsidizing rents for people who would otherwise not have been able to afford it. This approach worked. Studies show federal rent vouchers help seniors, families with children and people with disabilities stay housed.Unfortunately, over the past few decades, the federal government has shirked this responsibility. The wait list for federal vouchers in Multnomah County is thousands of people long. In addition, the wait to get into public housing is at least two years and can be more than 10 years.

Portland State University’s Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative recently found 107,000 households in the tri-county region pay so much in rent they risk falling into homelessness on any given night.

The numbers are just as troubling statewide. The Oregon Center for Public Policy says nearly one in four renter households in the state spends more than half of their income on housing.

These households are just one unexpected expense — a car repair, a medical bill, a lost shift at work — away from losing their housing. Once that happens, they’re sucked into a downward spiral from which it’s very difficult to escape. And even if they get emergency help with that one crisis, they continue to be at risk for the next one.

This means that even as cities and counties spend millions of dollars to help people off our streets and into housing, new people will slip into homelessness every day.

National studies continue to show that long-term rent vouchers are the quickest, most effective way to keep people housed and out of that downward spiral.

Local investments have also shown us the way. Since 2018, Multnomah County has partnered with nonprofit social service agencies and case workers to serve 45 seniors who were either homeless or at risk of homelessness with long-term rental vouchers — about $750 a month. After a year of receiving the help, according to an analysis of the pilot program this year, participants said their concerns over housing insecurity had all but vanished.

Cities and counties will continue to do all we can for people like the seniors in the pilot project, but the need is bigger than any local government can meet.

We need state leaders to step in. While the state provides some short-term rent assistance for use in emergencies, severely rent-burdened households need more. They need housing that is affordable on their very low wages. By filling the gap between income and rent, long-term vouchers provide that affordability.

And a voucher program is something we can act on right now, while we also pursue other important strategies that might take several years to bear fruit — like building more affordable apartments.

We can’t afford to let thousands more of our children, seniors and people with disabilities fall into homelessness when we know a targeted contribution works.

A statewide rental voucher program is the right next step for Oregon. We need to act, and we need to act now.