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The housing crisis remains a top concern for Oregon voters

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series looking at what voters say are the biggest problems facing Oregon right now, and what Oregon’s next governor might do about them.

There was a time, not long ago, that cities across America were determined to end chronic homelessness within a decade’s time.

Some even believed Portland was close to doing so.

“My sense was we were making good progress before the crash in 2008, and the crash overwhelmed local governments and we never came back from it,” said Erik Sten, a former Portland city commissioner who was a champion of the 10-year plan to end homelessness.

Today, there is no escaping Oregon’s housing and unsheltered crisis. It’s evident in nearly every part of the state. If you’re one of the lucky ones, it’s a topic of dinner conversation: Should Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler continue to sweep homeless camps, despite evidence that the strategy isn’t working? Will the business-backed group People for Portland make the problem better or worse by pushing elected officials to get tougher? How did the Oregon housing agency so badly bungle a program to help people financially devastated by COVID-19 pay their rent. Meanwhile, Zillow estimates of privately owned home values continue to soar.

The less lucky are camped outside the Blanchet House, hoping it’s not Sunday, the one day a week the nonprofit doesn’t provide food.

Jenn Coon is a peer support specialist at the downtown Portland nonprofit. She spends most days talking to people who are sleeping on the street or waiting in line for a hot meal, figuring out how she can help. For the man with the overflowing colonoscopy bag, it’s a fresh pair of clothes. Sometimes the people she meets just need a kind conversation.

Coon understands what it’s like to live on the streets, to eat food fished from a garbage can, to destroy so much of one’s life to get a fix.

“I had a normal life. I was married. We had two children. … We had a nice house in Tualatin,” she said.

Complications from a cesarean section decades ago meant she was on pain medications for a prolonged period. Her reliance on medication spiraled. And then a familiar cycle: She lost her job, her husband, and for a while her children; and the quest for opioids evolved into a more affordable option, heroin.

Now, she has her own apartment. She’s been in recovery for six years, and her children are back in her life.

It took stable housing for her to make a recovery, she said.

“I got the foundation I needed to live my life without drugs. It took over a year of being held accountable and being in a shelter and treatment facility,” she said.

The two issues — housing and homelessness — are inextricably linked.

OPB commissioned DHM Research to conduct a poll on issues potential Oregon voters are most concerned about. View the results here. When 600 people were asked to indicate what they see as the most important problem facing Oregon today, 29% of respondents statewide answered homelessness.

Source: DHM Research survey of Oregonians commissioned by OPB, overall margin of error 4%

The state of Oregon has a housing shortage. The 2008 housing crash hurt the state, and the COVID-19 pandemic further crystallized the shortage, but the underlying problem has been decades in the making. Josh Lehner, an economist with the state of Oregon, said some estimate the state is short at least 111,000 housing units, primarily those that would help lower-income families.

“When it comes to homelessness, specifically, there is a lot of research that has come out in the last decade that fundamentally homelessness is about the inability to afford housing,” Lehner said. “It seems self-explanatory, but I don’t know if that can be repeated enough. There are other places in the country that have mental health issues, drug addiction issues and high poverty issues, and at the same time they have lower rates of homelessness … People can still have mental health issues or drug addiction issues or live in poverty, but still have a roof over their heads because the housing is more affordable in other places.”

Source: DHM Research survey of Oregonians commissioned by OPB, overall margin of error 4%

DHM Research conducted a poll for OPB focused on issues potential Oregon voters are most concerned about. When 600 people were asked to indicate what they see as the most important problem facing Oregon today, 29% of respondents statewide answered homelessness.

Marisa Zapata, director of Portland State University’s Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative, said politicians will inevitably play a role in addressing this vexing issue.

“I think what’s hard right now is people are frustrated or angry and it looks like progress isn’t being made,” she said. “So politicians are saying, ‘We have to appease. We have to put more into shelters or mandate camps’ or look like they aren’t the ones leading on ending homelessness. … There is no counter to the fact that the only way to end homelessness is housing. It’s not a political statement to say that.”

In a recent debate between the top two Democratic candidates for governor, former House Speaker Tina Kotek touted her record on housing and homelessness in the Oregon Legislature.

“The Senate President is notorious for saying, ‘Every time she came to my office, she wanted more money for housing and homelessness,” Kotek said, speaking of Senate President Peter Courtney.

Not long after being elected speaker, Kotek muscled a 2013 measure through the Legislature to prevent landlords from rejecting prospective renters based solely on whether they were using subsidies from the federal Section 8 program. Kotek, who also has the most experience governing out of the candidates running for the state’s top office, has since pushed for several high-profile housing policies; she was instrumental in passing the first statewide rent control bill, she advocated allowing cities to more easily place homeless shelters and she effectively ended single-family zoning by allowing for the development of more duplexes, triplexes and the like in neighborhoods.

In the Portland City Club debate, Kotek noted she also led the way to invest money to turn hotels and motels into shelters, increasing the state’s shelter capacity by about 20% in seven months.

Her Democratic opponent Tobias Read fired back, “If the former Speaker wants to take all the credit for working on housing, I think it’s reasonable to ask how it’s going.”

The answer is evident on sidewalks across the state: Not well.

With all the money flowing to tackle the problem, Kotek said, Oregon should be seeing improvement. The problem, she said, is the state’s inability to work with local leaders to produce results.

“The only way to change that is to be in charge of the agencies and have the authority to get local government leader officials to work differently together,” Kotek said.

Housing was once considered a bit of an afterthought at the state level, and housing and homelessness were considered problems best addressed by cities and counties. In the state’s most populous region, for example, the city of Portland addressed affordable housing, Multnomah County oversaw addiction and mental illness and Metro took the lead on local land-use issues.

But now, the state plays a very large role in determining what the future of housing in Oregon will look like.

If elected governor, every single Republican candidate and Democratic candidate Read said they would fire all the current heads of state agencies. (Kotek was more circumspect, saying she would sit down with each one and ensure their values aligned.)

That would include the head of the Oregon Housing and Community Services. That agency has grown from having a budget of about $1.4 billion and employing 161 people in 2017-2019 to now having a staff of 364 and to a two-year budget of $3.1 billion.

One Republican frontrunner, former House Republican Leader Christine Drazan, said the state just keeps “funding conversations that lead to additional conversations and discussions” and at the end of the day these discussions do little to get people off the street.

“As governor, I will address the root causes of homelessness — addiction, mental health and affordability — and work with our nonprofits, the faith community and local governments to get people off the streets,” Drazan, who declined to answer a candidate survey, said in a text message to OPB. “We must help those looking for assistance. And when people commit criminal behavior, I will ensure they are prosecuted instead of given a pass. We cannot continue to enable this any longer.”

Stan Pulliam flatly called it a misconception that high housing costs were tied directly to the rate of homelessness.

“People don’t go from not being able to afford rent to stealing catalytic converters and living in a tent on Marine Drive,” Pulliam wrote in a survey OPB sent gubernatorial candidates. “Housing costs are a huge problem — but if you want to solve the homeless problem you need to start with repealing the measure that decriminalized hard drugs, and follow-up with enforcement of existing laws. We have a homeless problem because city governments are allowing it to be a problem.”

And candidate Bob Tiernan said allowing people without shelter to live on the street creates more problems.

“Unsanitary conditions, diseases, pestilence, ruining our public thoroughfares, public gathering places, small businesses and turning our clean and pristine city and town environments into third world looking landscapes. Homeless camping on our city streets cannot be tolerated. It must stop,” Tiernan wrote in his responses to OPB’s survey.

Coon, with the Blanchet House, said she’s not sure who she will vote for — or what the solution is. She certainly has moments of compassion fatigue.

“I wish I could take everyone home and give them an easier way to live,” she said.

Oregonians seem similarly conflicted. Most people in the DHM Research poll for OPB, agree that there is more homelessness in the state than there was a year ago, 76% said there was “much more.” And most, 70%, also agree with the notion that homelessness can be solved with the right policies and resources.

Source: DHM Research survey of Oregonians commissioned by OPB, overall margin of error 4%

And yet, their responses also illustrate how complicated this problem is. Only 16% of people surveyed said they would strongly support building a homeless shelter near where they would live; 31% said they would strongly oppose a shelter nearby. The percentage increased only slightly when asked about affordable housing; just 30% strongly support building affordable housing near where they live; a quarter of respondents strongly oppose affordable housing near them.

Source: DHM Research survey of Oregonians commissioned by OPB, overall margin of error 4%

Source: DHM Research survey of Oregonians commissioned by OPB, overall margin of error 4%

And many people surveyed don’t seem to want to pay to solve homelessness themselves: 55% of those polled opposed paying higher taxes to help build more shelters. Even more, 59% said they opposed the idea of paying higher taxes to help build affordable housing. (Two years ago, voters in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties did pass a tax to pay for more affordable housing and support services, but that’s paid by the region’s more affluent residents.)

Source: DHM Research survey of Oregonians commissioned by OPB, overall margin of error 4%

Until the solution is clear, Coon said she will continue to show up for those living on the street; for sack-lunch Saturday and Wednesday night spaghetti night.

And while the rest of the city buzzes past people in the midst of a mental health crisis or wrapped in a sleeping bag on the sidewalk, Coon will keep seeing them as the brothers, the sisters, the aunts, the friends, the humans they are.

“I know their stories. I know their names and I have that shared lived experience,” she said. " … I tell them, I’ll leave the light on for you.”

Source: DHM Research survey of Oregonians commissioned by OPB, overall margin of error 4%

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Tina Kotek
Kristyna Wentz-Graff /
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Tina Kotek
Tobias Read
Tobias Read Campaign /
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Tobias Read

Lauren Dake