How public policies aggravate housing inequity.
This morning as I left a church meeting I could not help noticing a cluster of vehicles and flimsy-plastic-tarp-covered shelters surrounding a portable toilet and dumpster in the parking lot. This is Eugene, Oregon’s current solution to the homeless problem. Several years ago our City Council magnanimously made it legal for people to sleep in their vehicles in church parking lots, provided the church allowed it and furnished the portable toilet.
Recently, responding to the reality that many of the homeless do not have vehicles, the Council has allowed another private charity to furnish these “Conestogas,” which are something like the bed of one of the old Conestoga wagons that carried the pioneers along the Oregon Trail. They are, perhaps, not noticeably inferior to the shanties that house people on the outskirts of third-world cities. However, I could not help but reflect that in Eugene, Oregon at the moment it is thirty-eight degrees and raining, so the absence of heat, utilities and indoor plumbing is something more of a hardship than it would be in Sao Paulo.
The number of homeless is growing, and increasingly includes families with young children. It includes many people who, two decades ago, given the same set of life circumstances, would have been able to afford an apartment on the open market. Some of these folks may now qualify for the limited stock of subsidized low-income housing, but the availability falls woefully short of the demand and there is a long waiting list. The only other option is the Mission, a church-sponsored facility founded to spread the Gospel to hobos, which provides meals and bunk beds in dormitories. Despite expansion the Mission is consistently filled to capacity.
If there were an absolute shortage of housing in Eugene, the conditions under which our poorest citizens exist might be pardonable. However, the lack of shelter is more the product of increasingly skewed distribution of wealth. There are probably as many affluent couples living alone in oversized luxury homes in this area as there are couples who cannot afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment. I am not proposing that the state force the affluent to open their homes to the poor, as was done in Russia after the 1917 revolution, but it seems clear to me that the housing inequity has reached a level which is morally unacceptable in a society that calls itself civilized.
To some extent the increasing homelessness we are seeing locally is the result of a general national trend of growing income inequity and erosion of the middle class. However, it is also the result of deliberate public policy on the part of the Eugene City Council, as exemplified by the apartment complex in the second picture. In the last four years, single-family housing construction locally has almost ground to a halt, but there is a boom in student apartments.
A three-bedroom unit in this complex rents for $1595 a month, or $595 if a student chooses the option of renting a bedroom with kitchen privileges directly from the rental agency. Social service agencies locally estimate that a single person, working full time at minimum wage, can afford a maximum of $375 a month in rent. The local labor market is so depressed that even people with developed skills or post-secondary education are either working for close to minimum wage or unable to find full-time work. Basically, the only people who can afford to live there are either young people from affluent families or students living on borrowed money.
Our city government is not only encouraging, but also subsidizing this type of development, giving tax breaks to the developers (few of them local) which must be paid for by homeowners and owners of existing rentals. The developers also get Federal tax breaks for energy-efficient construction, even when it has become standard, and there are some special provisions for student housing as well. To make room for these subsidized overpriced student rentals the developers razed a goodly portion of older apartment complexes from the 1960’s, originally built for students but in recent years more catering to low-income singles.
That this is another housing bubble should be painfully obvious. The developers obtain venture capital for construction from investors, by pointing to the recent sharp growth in public institutions like the University of Oregon. That growth is already leveling off or even falling as more and more people are concluding that the amount of money they need to borrow to obtain a public education is just not worth it. The affluent get more affluent every year, but they are not a large demographic, and young people squeezed by the economy are not having children to feed into the education pipeline.
I do what I can. I rent rooms at below market rates, and keep my fingers crossed that the City of Eugene will not discover some code or zoning violation, force my low-income tenants into Conestogas and leave me without the money to pay property taxes. I help support the Mission. And mostly, I look on in amazement and wonder how the town where I grew up, which prides itself on its liberality, reached the point where allowing families to sleep in plastic shanties in church parking lots constitutes caring for the poor.
Photos By Martha Sherwood – All Rights Reserved