Tag: afordable housing

Homelessness in the Portland Region-cm

Homelessness in the Portland Region

Some straightforward solutions to a complex problem

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D. and Vlad Yurlov

Executive Summary

Every city in the United States has homeless individuals and families. Coastal cities, especially on the West Coast, have numbers of homeless that have hit crisis levels. In addition to the personal toll homelessness takes on the individuals and their families, the spread of unsheltered homeless populations and homeless camps imposes enormous social costs in the form of public health, public safety, and livability for the community at-large.

After decades of attempts to address homelessness—and unknown, but large, amounts of money spent—the crisis seems to have worsened in many places, especially in Portland, Oregon. Since the mid-1980s the region has launched long-range plans to “end” homelessness. All of the plans failed to reach their goals, for many reasons: insufficient funding, political headwinds, legal barriers, and the seeming intractability of solving the problem.

In 2020, the region’s voters approved two new income taxes to provide “supportive housing services” to the homeless and those at risk of becoming homeless. The taxes are anticipated to bring in approximately $250 million a year. During the campaign, proponents claimed, “We know what works, it’s just a matter of scale.” That’s not correct.

To be blunt, we don’t know what works, and there appear to be no economies of scale. For more than two decades, the “Housing First” approach has been heralded as the best solution. The approach focuses first on providing housing to individuals and families, then addressing issues that led participants to homelessness and are keeping them from being housed. These “wrap around” services are expensive and require individuals to have the ability and will to fully use them.

While the approach has improved outcomes regarding the transmission of HIV and the survival of those with HIV/AIDS and has had some success in reducing alcohol abuse, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concluded that there is no substantial published evidence to demonstrate improved health outcomes or reduced health care costs. Moreover, there is no evidence that Housing First approaches have had any effect on reducing overall homelessness or the number of unsheltered homeless.

For the community at large, the unsheltered population is the biggest concern. These are the people seen sleeping on the streets, in parks, in tents, in cars, or in abandoned buildings. This population is most quickly associated with filth left in doorways, needles scattered in parks, car prowls, and property theft. While a majority of Portland area voters have compassion for the homeless, they also want an end to overnight camping. They want to feel safe walking down the street or in their parks. They want their city’s businesses to flourish.

Many cities are bound by the Ninth Circuit Court’s decision in Martin v. City of Boise. This ruling prohibits city anti-camping ordinances from being enforced if there is no shelter space available. In addition, the City of Portland is bound by a settlement agreement requiring 24-hour notice before homeless camps can be cleared. The delays associated with the notice requirement means once a camp is reported, it can take the city a week or more to clear a camp.

One way to enforce a camping ban, while complying with Martin, is to develop a database of vacant and available shelter space. If the database indicates space is available, broad laws that prohibit public camping may be enforced. For example, after the Martin decision, Modesto, California implemented a straightforward inventory/vacancy system. Each day, county staff contact emergency homeless shelter providers in the county to track the availability of shelter beds. The information is then distributed to outreach workers and law enforcement officers. Police officers are then able to offer people who are camping illegally a more stable place to stay. As simple as this may seem, neither the City of Portland nor the State of Oregon has such a system.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Portland has increased temporary emergency shelter beds to allow shelters to practice socially distancing. Among other locations, sites have been set up at the Oregon Convention Center, three community centers, a recently abandoned Greyhound bus station, and vacant outdoor land. Cascade Policy Institute proposes the city should continue to pursue making permanent some of these low-cost emergency shelters and camping sites.

In October 2020, Bybee Lakes Hope Center opened its doors as a supportive transitional housing facility for the homeless at the site of the never-opened Wapato Jail in Portland. Along the way, the project faced opposition from local politicians who claim solving homelessness is their main priority. Opponents argued housing people in a former jail was undignified, saying it amounted to merely “warehousing” the homeless. They claimed local zoning laws—which they control—didn’t allow for housing. But, the owner and operator of Bybee Lakes overcame these objections and now the site provides a template for repurposing surplus public land and buildings into facilities to serve the homeless.

Toward that end, Cascade Policy Institute urges Metro, the regional government, to convert into emergency housing the now-shuttered Portland Expo Center. The Expo Center is a 330,000-square-foot exposition facility sitting on 53 acres of land. It has easy access to public transit as a light rail line terminates at the front of the Expo Center and provides frequent service to downtown Portland. The facility needs significant capital investment to remain competitive in the exposition market, but has no identified funding source to meet these needs.

At 100 square feet per person, the site’s exhibition space alone could serve 2,000 to 3,000 individuals. Its 2,500 vehicle parking lot provides ample space for individuals who prefer to camp or sleep in vehicles. Converting the Expo Center could bring immediate relief to thousands of homeless individuals and families while providing a much better return on investment than current plans to remodel the site for low-attendance expositions. In addition, the massive increase in shelter capacity from converting the Expo Center would provide local jurisdictions the opportunity to reduce overnight camping and to clear camps, while remaining in compliance with the Ninth Circuit’s Martin v. Boise ruling.

None of Cascade’s proposals “solve” or “end” homelessness. Instead, they take some big steps toward a coherent framework for addressing homelessness: reach out to those who want help, be firm with those who don’t, and create an environment where residents feel safe and businesses can flourish.


Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute. He is also an adjunct professor at Portland State University, where he teaches course in urban economics and real estate.

Vlad Yurlov is a Policy Analyst at Cascade, specializing in homeless, transportation, and regional land-use planning. He has a Bachelor of Science in Quantitative Economics from Portland State University.

Research assistance was provided by Rachel Dawson and Helen Doran.

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Avoidable Expenses for Affordable Housing-cm

Avoidable Expenses for Affordable Housing

By Vlad Yurlov

While many people in the Portland region value efficient governments, prevailing wage laws are rarely questioned. Prevailing wage laws drain tax-payer funded resources by increasing the labor costs of public construction projects such as affordable housing. These laws were originally enacted to shut out minorities from construction jobs in the 1930s. Portland and Metro are currently using more than $900 million in tax dollars to build affordable housing projects. Both jurisdictions are subject to prevailing wage laws that significantly decrease their efficiency.

Portland and Metro’s housing bonds are already spending roughly $300,000 per new unit, which is nearly double market-rate projects. The Bond Stakeholder Advisory Group of the Portland Housing Bureau found that “[p]revailing wage typically increases the labor costs in a project by approximately 12% to 18%.” This means fewer housing units can be built.

One of Portland’s recent projects avoided paying prevailing wages by limiting the number of project-based vouchers that their building contained. This clearly shows that prevailing wages inhibit the creation of affordable housing. To increase efficiency in affordable housing construction, Oregon must end prevailing wage laws.

Vlad Yurlov is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Government Alone Can’t Solve Homelessness-cm

Government Alone Can’t Solve Homelessness

By Vlad Yurlov

On October 2, Helping Hands unveiled its latest transitional housing facility. After Wapato Jail collected dust for 14 years, Jordan Schnitzer bought the facility to create a homeless shelter. Allen Evans, someone who spent years battling homelessness, was eventually tapped to lead the effort. During months-long negotiations and media coverage, many public officials denounced the plan to house homeless people in what they still thought of as a jail. If a deal had not been made, the whole building would have been demolished.

All of their concerns were addressed by Helping Hands, the data-driven nonprofit organization that is now set to offer transitional housing to the homeless population. Under the leadership of Allen Evans, Helping Hands worked with many organizations to supply the Bybee Lakes Hope Center with education, internet access, and transportation.

At the grand opening, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler admitted, “Government couldn’t do it alone.” Even when a solution was presented, the government didn’t back the shelter for months. The philanthropic community and private businesses banded together to solve a problem in an innovative way without the need for public money. To solve homelessness, Portland should embrace public-private partnerships that are led by people who know how to get things done.

Vlad Yurlov is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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The Housing Crisis Isn’t a Portland Problem; It’s a UGB Problem

By Rachel Dawson

Portland’s housing crisis isn’t unique to the Metro region. Other areas of Oregon, such as Bend in Central Oregon, are also experiencing rising housing costs. But the high price of living isn’t the only similarity between these two areas: Both Portland and Bend have strict urban growth boundaries (UGB) and government regulations that artificially inflate the cost of building homes, and thus their prices to buyers.

Permits in Bend are low; twice as many building permits were pulled in 2005 compared to now. Given Bend’s population growth, this certainly isn’t due to a lack of demand.

So then why are homes in short supply when demand is only growing? There are two major factors driving this issue: land availability and regulatory fees.

Just like in Portland, Bend has a UGB and an influx of residents. This boundary restricts the amount of buildable land available for purchase, which in turn increases both the value and the cost of the land.

On top of artificially high land prices, regulatory fees to construct a home in Bend are around $30,000 before any shovel hits the dirt. Further, the new Corporate Activities Tax is “a huge devastating reality for the industry and will ultimately be passed on to the home buyer.”

To make housing more affordable, both Bend and Portland officials should make more land available to developers and cut back on regulatory fees. Doing so will help ease the housing crisis without increasing the burden placed on residents.

Rachel Dawson is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free-market public policy research organization.

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Metro’s Housing Philosophy is Political, Not Practical

By Miranda Bonifield

Metro’s attempts to provide low-income public housing since last year’s $653 million bond measure passed have been stymied by the same problem encountered by cities from Portland to Stockholm: Metro’s preferred way of building housing is too expensive to be sustainable.

But instead of addressing the overwhelming costs of its projects, Metro is doubling down on ineffective practices which neither accomplish its goals nor increase the supply of so-called affordable housing.

For instance, Metro’s interest in “leading with racial equity” means they prioritize firms certified to be owned by minorities, women, or “emerging small businesses.” Members of Metro’s housing bond oversight committee recounted multiple stories in early meetings of contractors who circumvent the certification’s requirements by outsourcing their government work to other, non-certified contractors—rendering the certification nearly meaningless.

A local contractor pointed out that small businesses with limited capital avoid government contracts because the government doesn’t pay on time and requires mountains of time-consuming paperwork. Cutting red tape out of the process could improve the chances of small businesses bidding for contracts. But instead of emphasizing these practical considerations, the committee recommended local governments increase the number of meaninglessly certified contractors they hire. That’s not helping our community– it’s just virtue signaling.

Miranda Bonifield is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market policy research organization.

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