SALEM —Breaking New Ground, Oregon’s five-year Statewide Housing Plan, articulates how Oregon Housing and Community Services (OHCS) will pave the way for more Oregonians to have access to housing opportunities and achieve housing stability and self-sufficiency through six policy priorities. These priorities include equity and racial justice, ending unsheltered homelessness for Oregon’s Veterans and children, permanent supportive housing, bridging the affordable rental housing gap through an ambitious rental housing production agenda, expanding homeownership opportunities and addressing the housing needs of rural Oregon.
Equity and racial justice must be at the core of any long term planning, and it is identified as both a guiding principal and a priority in Breaking New Ground. And let’s face it: equity and racial justice work is hard, but it is some of the most critical and important work that can be done to transform an agency. Institutional and systemic transformation takes commitment from all levels of an agency. The work is about evolving and setting the foundation for the future of OHCS and the services we provide.
Leading with equity and racial justice drives our work because people of color face the biggest disparities. We also know that other communities, including people with disabilities and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual (LGBTQ+) people also face deep disparity in housing. This is a key priority across Oregon, urban and rural. Five of the six Oregon counties with the highest percentages of people of color are rural. We must commit to reaching underserved communities in all of Oregon. Without question, communities of color, LGBTQ+ communities, people living with disabilities and other underserved communities are resilient despite the barriers created in public systems. Housing has long been one place where injustice, oppression and discrimination have had the most impact. Housing choice and location have been used as a tool for governments, banks, and neighborhoods to discriminate against communities of color. In attempting to rent, buy, obtain a mortgage, or secure home insurance they have been denied, harassed, given less favorable terms and conditions, or experienced a lower level of service than other groups.
Though no longer enforceable, racially restrictive covenants still litter Oregon real estate documents creating a stark reminder of our not so distant history.
And that is just our past.
Today, people of color continue to face discrimination in our economy and in our housing markets.
Due to persistent poverty and glaring wage gaps, African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, Asian/Pacific Islanders and people of two or more races are more likely to spend a greater share of their incomes on rent. This leads to housing insecurity and a higher risk of homelessness, and data shows that people of color are experiencing homelessness at disproportionate levels. Even in accessing services we see disparities. For example, language barriers prevent immigrant and non-English speaking communities from accessing services.
We see disparities that impact communities beyond housing instability. For families that achieve homeownership, we see that white households own homes at almost double the rate of their African American counterparts, creating systemic barriers to geographic and economic mobility, wealth creation, job and educational opportunities, and overall community building.
Housing discrimination is also pervasive for the LGBTQ+ community. LGBTQ+ community members are subjected to violence, ridicule and harassment, making them extremely vulnerable when homeless or housing insecure. Being homeless is dangerous for anyone and that danger is intensified when a person is exposed to violence or cannot take advantage of shelters or other services because of their gender or sexual identity.
As we pursue equity and racial justice, we must understand the historical and structural impacts of housing discrimination. We need to acknowledge where we have been, where we are today and the hope that lies in tomorrow.
So how do we begin to change the systems that have formed and perpetuated inequity?
We listen to underserved communities on their experience of living in poverty and navigating homelessness. We listen to understand, to identify gaps, and to do our work better. Policy changes must make programs more accessible to historically underserved communities. As we work to create a system that advances equity and eliminates disparities for people of color and our LGBTQ+ neighbors, we must be diligent and aware of the potential for unintentional impacts. We must constantly seek feedback from our partners and the communities we are serving. We’ll need to be flexible and willing to adjust. We must not be afraid to fail when within that failure lies our opportunity to grow.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the important role of our partners in helping us carry out this work. Many of them have already begun their journey to ensure their own organizations are racially just and equitable. Knowing that we cannot, and should not, move equity and racial justice alone, we are asking our partners to also demonstrate their commitment to equity and racial justice. It is imperative that housing and service providers join with us in delivering equitable treatment and outcomes for communities of color, LGBTQ+ communities and people with disabilities.
OHCS recognizes how important this process is to not only our organization, but to Oregonians across the state. This priority is about more than just understanding language, shifting data practices, and strategy implementation. It’s about true change that lasts well beyond five years. It is about systemic and organizational transformation. We are committed and ready to dig in. I implore you to join us in this work, to hold us accountable, as we seek to create a better Oregon where inequity is a thing of the past and opportunity is available for all.