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.
During the 40 plus outreach events we held across the state in 2017 and 2018, we heard loud and clear that Oregon needs a thoughtful approach to addressing the housing needs in rural communities. Elected officials, employers, community-based organizations, hospitals, developers, landlords, volunteers and community members participated in these outreach sessions, painting a vivid picture of the struggles and opportunities in their small communities. These stories, supported by compelling data provided the imperative for the Statewide Housing Plan’s Rural priority with a goal increasing OHCS funded housing in rural Oregon by 75%.
What is clear to us is the issue at the center of housing affordability in rural Oregon is housing supply or lack thereof.
For most small towns in Oregon, new construction is an uphill battle. Recently all cities in Oregon with a population over 10,000 provided data about new housing production, and in most cases what we saw is that that new housing development in rural Oregon is still struggling. For example, in St. Helens only six new homes were produced in 2018, only four in The Dalles, and seven in Ontario. This lack of production creates its own challenges as developers struggle to obtain appraisals due to lack of comparable housing, further hindering development ability.
One can argue that housing costs are lower in rural compared to urban areas so it should be cheaper to live in small towns, right? Well, data reveals a different story. Incomes in rural Oregon are shown to be very comparable with those of rural America but Oregon’s home prices are 30% higher, and rents are 15% higher. With all that Oregon has to offer, our state has become a very desirable place to live. Rural Oregon has seen greater population growth when compared to rural communities nationwide. Increased pressure on the housing market has created highly rent burdened residents, and let’s not forget about transportation costs when employment is an hour or more away, or the grocery store is located in the next county.
And then your car breaks down, or you lose your job. While this may sound like lyrics from an old country song, these are realities for many and poverty in our rural communities is unconscionable. In Lincoln County, more than one out of every ten children attending K-12 school experienced homelessness at some point during the 2017-2018 school year. On a per capita basis, more people are experiencing homelessness in rural counties than in urban ones. And in Malheur County, a poverty rate of 25% is taking its toll communitywide. Another key factor is overall poor housing quality and an abundance of aging manufactured homes, built before 1980. These older manufactured homes provide 30% of the housing stock in some counties. In addition, five of the six Oregon counties with the highest percentages of people of color are rural. The disproportionate impacts of poverty, homelessness and housing instability on people of color in rural Oregon cannot be ignored. In focus groups with Oregon’s agricultural workers, we heard about dire housing conditions.
It’s clear our rural neighbors are struggling and we must respond.
With Local Innovation and Fast Track (LIFT) housing program, we have seen affordable developments come to fruition in communities that have not seen development in 20 plus years. But this is just a start. Over the next five years, we plan to maximize the LIFT program to increase affordable housing supply in communities desperate for new affordable homes. We will develop new and foster existing relationships to help communities overcome barriers to housing development. To start, OHCS is already facilitating the Rural Oregon Peer Network for successful service-enriched housing opportunities to stabilize vulnerable populations equitably.
We plan to improve accessibility to OHCS programs, and proactively build relationships with local governments and Oregon’s Federally Recognized Tribes as key rural economic development partners. We will continue to emphasize partnerships with culturally specific housing and service providers to ensure equitable access for communities of color in rural Oregon. As part of an ambitious legislative session and with leadership from Governor Brown, HB 2055 would create the Greater Oregon Housing Accelerator building off momentum from the Regional Solutions Workforce Housing Initiative – linking business development, transportation and land use planning investments with motivated employers who desire for their employees to be able to live where they work. It’s these robust partnerships across public and private industry and between levels of government that will lead to increased housing in our rural communities.
Our hope is to improve quality of life and prosperity for all Oregonians, in all corners of this beautiful state.