Merkley continues fight for affordable housing

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley continues to work to make housing more affordable, saying the federal government needs to act to end a growing national problem.

During a meeting with officials from Portland State University, Merkley touted the Affordable Home Act, legislation he presented in the Senate.

“Like all of you, I’ve been passionate about the need to address affordable housing, going back to my days as director of Human Solutions,” Merkley said.

Before he became a senator, Merkley ran Human Solutions and later Habitat for Humanity in the Portland area. Both orginazations work to provide housing to those in need.

Merkley said having a home provides benefits for all in the family.

“When you can afford your home, when you have shelter, you feel like you have a stake in the community,” Merkley said. “That sense of stability translates to your children and their success in school. All of it is possible when you have a solid house to call home. But we have, as you know, a huge problem with affordable hounsing in the country.”

Merkley said a problem in Oregon and other parts of the country is the cost of housing is rising at unbelievable rates.

“Housing has gone up so much faster in cost than have wages,” Merkley said. “When my parents bought a modest ranch home, it cost about twice what me dad earned as a mechanic in a year. Today, the typical single-family home costs about four times the home’s income.”

Another problem is even rental prices have skyrocketed.

“It’s not any better when it comes to renting,” Merkley said. “Since 1960, renters average earning have risen 5% while the rents have gone up 61%. That’s a huge, huge differential. An American worker earning the federal minimum wage would have to work over 100 hours a week to afford an average two-bedroom apartment.”

With housing prices rising so much faster than income, Merkley said there is a growing need for the government to intervene. But even when the government tries to help, Merkley admitted it doesn’t always help.

“The waiting list for public housing is long,” Merkley said. “They are 10 months in some places, eight years in another. Only a fraction of the families that are eligible of getting housing vouchers end up getting one.”

Merkley said the growing housing problem, especially in most of Oregon, means the federal government must intervene.

“All of this is why I introduced the Affordable Home Act,” Merkley said. “It tries to address the shortcomings nationwide in a variety of ways.”

If approved, the bill would invest in the National Housin Trust Fund, lower the price of housing, build a 21st Century housing supply, offer housing support services and more.

Merkley said some elements of the bipartisan infrastructure bill include housing. He is also working with the Biden administration to secure up to $300 billion in rental assistance and down payment assistance in the budget reconciliation process.

“These are the types of efforts that are going to start making a difference,” Merkley said. “Small changes are not going to overcome the downward spiral we’re in now. While my team and I continue to push the bill forward, we’re trying to win as much of this vision as possible.”

At Portland State, Lisa Bates works full time on housing issues. She said there are a lot of issues that must be addressed, but one she is concentrating on now is the eviction process.

She said even with eviction moratoriums, the vast majority of people are trying to pay rent. She said a statewide survey revealed two-thirds of renters have kept up on rent, with many taking out loans, collecting cans or missing out on food or medicine to pay rent.

“We haven’t yet in Oregon has the tsunami of evictions, but the wave is definitely growing,” Bates said. “In the eviction space, there’s a lot of confusion among policy makers.”

That confusion leads to most renters who have no idea what their rights are. Bates and Portland State have been working to create a statewide service to offer legal assistance to renters who are in the eviction process. She also said the state has received millions in federal funding for renter assistance, but little of that money has reached the people.