Merkley: Oregon is in a housing crisis

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said rising house prices and rental costs, plus an extremely low rental vacancy rate, are contributing to an affordable housing crisis in Southern Oregon and across the state.

“Families are just being absolutely squeezed as a result,” said Merkley, who met with local housing experts Wednesday at the Jackson County Housing Authority’s Cherry Creek Apartments, an affordable housing project in Medford.

Merkley has embarked on a tour to gather information and highlight affordable housing problems in the state. He said people are moving to Oregon for its natural beauty and quality of life, but the housing supply has fallen behind demand.

Oregon Housing and Community Services Director Margaret Van Vliet said the state has 130,000 extremely low-income households, yet only 20,000 housing units are affordable for those households.

“It’s important to understand the magnitude of the problem,” Van Vliet said, noting that people who do find housing are often burdened by rent costs and live in substandard apartments and houses.

“The situation is dire,” she added.

Single father Ben Knudsen said it was hard for him to find a safe, affordable place to raise his family before he moved into Cherry Creek Apartments. He works full time and also went back to school at Southern Oregon University, where he is studying computer science in order to land a higher-paying job.

“A lot of rentals are outrageously high for someone trying to work, go to school and feed their kids,” Knudsen said.

Single mother Meagan Hadley, who also lives at the apartments, said she struggled with addiction and was repeatedly homeless with her children before she got help through OnTrack addiction treatment, housing and child care programs. Her housing situation is now stable, and she is about to finish a business degree and go to work for OnTrack.

“It can be done,” Hadley said. “It’s hard, and you have to work for it, but it can be done.”

Local housing experts said providing social services in addition to housing assistance is often an effective strategy.

Veterans Affairs employees said they are having success housing veterans by addressing other issues that can contribute to homelessness, such as mental health issues and substance abuse. Providing help paying for rental deposits also is an effective strategy, they said.

People struggling to find housing they can afford cited difficulties in saving up enough money to pay security deposits plus first and last months’ rent.

City of Ashland housing program specialist Linda Reid said federal Community Development Block Grant funding has been reduced year after year. The pools of money are sometimes so small Ashland can’t attract builders or organizations to construct housing.

Reid said a fraction of federal CDBG funds can be used to pay for social services that help people get into and stay in stable housing situations.

More flexibility in how local communities spend federal dollars would help, said Reid and other housing experts.

Despite the tiny-house craze that is sweeping the nation, local planning laws and federal regulations make it difficult for people to use tiny houses for affordable housing, experts said.

Merkley said easing regulations could create an opportunity for the private sector to meet the demand for tiny houses.

Several local housing experts said using affordable housing funds to refurbish existing housing, including manufactured homes, is a cost-effective way to keep people housed and maintain the housing stock.

Several employees of local social services organizations said they are cultivating relationships with landlords. That includes working with small-scale “mom and pop” landlords to accept people, and getting property management companies and landlords to reach out and notify organizations about new rental vacancies.

ACCESS Executive Director Jackie Schad said too many foreclosed houses remain vacant and in limbo, even as families are struggling to find housing.

Jackson County Housing Authority Director Scott Foster said the agency is building two new affordable apartment complexes, but it can’t keep up with demand.

“We are in a crisis as far as rental housing is concerned,” Foster said.

On the national front, Merkley said he is working in Congress to boost funding for affordable-housing programs — and to get more national dollars sent to states with the worst housing situations, such as Oregon.

While the national rental vacancy rate is 7 percent, Oregon has a 3.5 percent vacancy rate, according to Merkley’s office.

In Jackson County, the vacancy rate has plunged to 2 percent, according to the local rental owners association and property management company statistics.

To keep pace with Oregon’s growing population, 25,000 housing units would need to be built every year, but only 15,000 are being constructed, according to the Oregon Home Builders Association.