Merkley: More housing must be built

Monday, July 17, 2023

By: Peter Wong

Portland Tribune

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley says the federal and state governments should be doing more to add housing, which in his view has been long neglected.

The Oregon Democrat speaks from his experience, going back three decades, when he was executive director of Portland Habitat for Humanity. The international organization, which former President Jimmy Carter gave prominence to, helps low-income families take part in efforts by volunteers to build housing.

Merkley spoke Saturday, July 15, at a town hall meeting attended by more than 100 people at Century High School in Hillsboro, and was his 538th such meeting since he became a senator in 2009. His comments were in response to a question from a woman who said her son needed housing along with mental health and addictions treatment.

“The broader challenge is that we have to have more housing at every level,” he said. “If we try to address housing only through building two-bedroom apartments, we cannot subsidize and build enough apartments.”

Though housing advocates have long focused on the ideal, Merkley said low-cost options such as single-room occupancy have mostly disappeared when they are needed now. He recalled an earlier time in New York City.

“I was so happy to live in a room that had a closet, a bed, a desk and a window — and the bathroom was down the hall,” he said in a brief interview before the meeting. But it cost me only $50 a week and I could afford to live on what I was being paid in New York City (then $800 per month). But we got rid of the affordable options and we made the situation worse.”

Merkley recalled that Portland city officials, with the exceptions of Commissioners Gretchen Kafoury and Earl Blumenauer, were more focused back then on downtown development. A nine-story, 129-unit apartment building downtown is named in honor of Gretchen Kafoury — the mother of Deborah Kafoury, the former Multnomah County chair — and Blumenauer is now a U.S. representative from Oregon’s 3rd District.

“It has gotten little attention going back decades,” he said.

“It was housing that incentivized me to run for office. I told Portland city officials that there are neighborhoods that need investment and housing is a problem. I was sitting down with Vera Katz (then mayor) and thinking that maybe I need to be on the other side of the table to make a difference on housing.”

A study by Portland State University said Oregon fell short by 110,000 units over the decade after the 2007-10 economic downturn — 55,000 of them needed by households that earn less than the area median income. Gov. Tina Kotek has set an annual production goal of 36,000 units, 80% greater than Oregon’s recent five-year average of 20,000.

“I am impressed that the governor got that $200 million investment in housing and homelessness” as one of her first legislative priorities, he said. “We need more of everything.”

Housing and hedge funds

Merkley no longer sits on the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, where he was for his first eight years in the Senate. But he is preparing to reintroduce a bill, which died at the end of the previous 117th Congress (S 5151), to bar hedge funds and private equity firms from owning housing.

He said that in 2021, hedge funds and private equity accounted for 42.8% of home sales in Atlanta and 38.8% in Phoenix 38.8%.

“It was a huge factor in driving up costs,” he said “The price of homes went up, rents went up — and homes should be for families, not a profit center for Wall Street. So let’s get them out of that business.”

His bill would require them to sell off their current housing in stages.

As a new senator and banking committee member in 2009, Merkley said he noticed that the two large federal mortgage lenders — Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — were disposing of foreclosed houses at 50 cents on the dollar. “Who can buy a thousand houses at once? Either a billionaire or a hedge fund, because they have the money.”

He asked federal officials to make such homes available for sale to individuals, as was done during the Great Depression of the 1930s, but was told that sales needed to happen more rapidly.

Though a supporter of President Barack Obama on many issues, Merkley was sharply critical of his administration — particularly Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner — for doing too little to help foreclosed homeowners. Defenders said many of those homeowners took on subprime mortgages they could not afford and should not have gotten.

“Homeownership is — or was — the single biggest factor in middle-class wealth in America,” he said at the meeting. “Student debt has a huge impact.”

He responded to a woman who said she has been able over 15 years to repay all but $5,000 of the principal she borrowed, but accumulating interest keeps her behind by $10,000 over the original principal. She said hers was a direct federal loan, not a federally guaranteed loan.

“It just seems there’s no end in sight,” she said. “I have no problem paying back what I borrowed; I understand that concept. It just feels like I will be paying on them before I die.”

Merkley said he opposes “free” college, and that families that can afford to contribute to their children’s higher education should do so. But he also said that students should not have to bear huge debt burdens once they graduate.

“We need to tackle this on the front end,” he said. “So the next generation is not burdened the way so many people here today are burdened.”

At the start of the meeting, Merkley gave recognition to Northwest Mothers Milk Bank, based in Tigard, which has provided 3.4 million ounces of mother’s milk since it began a decade ago. “It means thousands of meals for babies who might otherwise go without,” said executive director Lesley Mondeaux, who received a U.S. flag that has flown over the Capitol.

While speaker of the Oregon House in 2007, Merkley won legislative approval for a bill that requires workplaces to allow mothers privacy to produce milk.

Other issues

On other issues, Merkley:

• Opposes U.S. transfer of cluster munitions to Ukraine for use in its war against Russia; all three nations did not sign the 2008 treaty banning them. He wrote an op-ed to that effect July 7 for The Washington Post.

But when he asked: “How many folks here support standing with the people of Ukraine?” he got a round of applause, which drowned out a couple of his critics who challenged him on both points. Merkley also had the microphone.

“I stand four square with the people of Ukraine who are standing for their freedom of speech, religion, assembly,” he said. “They are being attacked by Vladimir Putin.”

• Criticized a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld a Colorado website designer’s refusal to serve a same-sex couple on grounds of religious freedom. Merkley is the chief sponsor of legislation barring discrimination based on sexual orientation, although the court ruled in 2020 that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does protect gay and lesbian workers in employment. Merkley said the website designer, who hadn’t formed a business, should not have been allowed to sue.

“The Supreme Court ignored all the traditions of the law that says you have to show harm before you can take a case forward,” he said. “I am concerned that this court is abandoning its role as referees under the Constitution and is trying to be a far-right super legislature.”

• Said a real problem has arisen with the use of artificial intelligence to create “deep fakes,” photos and videos that appear to be real but are not — and can fool even detection services. The Senate is considering whether to make such practices illegal. “But there is no easy answer to it, except a better informed population — and to be able to confront people proposing to put out fake information or lies.”