Wyden, Merkley talk federal housing legislation, tax credits in Portland

Oregon Capitol Chronical
Oregon’s two U.S. senators say the timing is right for approval of more federal funding and tax credits for housing for low- and middle-income families in Oregon and elsewhere. 

Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Democrats, discussed their housing legislation at a press event Wednesday with housing advocates at Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives, an organization that develops low-income housing in Portland. Their work in the U.S. Senate coincides with a state-level push to nearly double the number of homes built each year in Oregon.

Wyden, who this spring reintroduced a bill that would create tax credits for renters, down payments and developers of middle-income housing, said he sees growing bipartisan support in Congress for addressing a widespread housing crisis.  

“At the end of this summer, senators came back and went to meetings the two of us were in, and they said the inability to house our workers is destroying economic development in our area,” Wyden said. 

He said Democrats and Republicans alike are interested in passing an economic package with tax breaks by the end of the year, including research and development tax credits, restoring the expanded child tax credit, expanding the low-income housing tax credit and potentially including the middle-income housing tax credit he proposed. 

Wyden, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said he urged the Internal Revenue Service to chase down the nearly 1,000 millionaires who failed to pay federal taxes in recent years and owe the government close to $34 billion. That money would go a long way toward improving the housing crisis. 

Merkley, meanwhile, is working on a longer-term plan to get hedge funds out of home ownership. The Finance Committee will begin considering legislation he introduced to establish that any investors that own more than 100 single-family homes pay a $20,000 federal tax penalty on every additional home and require them to each year sell at least 10% of the homes they own to families who intend to live there.

When he first introduced the bill two years ago, Merkley said many people didn’t understand what it was about. But since then, articles in major newspapers detailed how investors bought hundreds of thousands of homes across the country, and more prospective homebuyers have had the experience of losing out to an investor who paid in cash. 

“Momentum is growing, but it’s still an education process,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that this is a bill we could pass tomorrow, but people are starting to see how big the crisis is and realize that the hedge funds are a big contributor to it.” 

Impact on school districts

Pat Sublette, superintendent of the Columbia Gorge Education Service District, joined Wyden and Merkley to highlight how the housing crisis affects school districts and teachers. Across the state, 28 school districts have now built or bought housing for educators who couldn’t find housing or afford to live in the community otherwise. 

“There are teachers who are living in cars,” Sublette said. “There are teachers who are living in motor homes or campers. There are teachers who move from county park to county park, because they don’t have a place to live.”

Housing costs make it harder to recruit teachers and fill housing shortages, and the cost of housing has come up as an issue in bargaining with teachers’ unions, Sublette said. 

Kymberly Horner, executive director of Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives, said her employees’ experiences highlight the housing crisis in Oregon. 

“Currently, I have staff that cannot even afford to get into housing themselves, and they are middle-income people,” she said. “If we are developers building housing, and we can’t even get our own folks into housing, then folks, there’s a problem.”