Shantytowns and Upscale Developments

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.

Flimsy plastic tarp covered shelters surrounding a portable toilet and dumpster in a parking lot.

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.



Photo Credits

Photos By Martha Sherwood – All Rights Reserved


Recent Martha Sherwood Articles:


  1. avatarRuth Clifford says

    Thank you for this thoughtful and in-depth analysis of the housing situation in the Eugene area.This is a familiar pattern in other parts of our society, where upscale building keeps growing while increasingly outpricing the means of most of the population. In my state, California, universities, public and private, have been building new, expensive buildings while taking on debt and becoming less affordable for their students. We have a new community hospital in the Palo Alto area that features mostly private rooms and high-tech wonders like robots that deliver supplies. It is suffering from low patient census while the health care needs all around it are going unmet.

  2. avatar says

    Thank you, Martha,

    I too leave in Eugene and the plight of our homeless brethren is something we all need to become more sensitive to. Your words help me and I am certain will help others. These homeless folks have so much to offer to each of us, wherever we are in our own individual life journeys.

  3. avatarPam Perryman says

    I think your point about the student rentals being another bubble is well taken. I own several older student rentals, and we’re not asking anywhere near that much in rent. Eventually these student rental speculators are going to run out of rich students to rent them. Apparently the large Titan apartment complex opposite the downtown Library, aimed at the Lane Community College students, is not filling up as hoped — the rents are too high. Community college students don’t usually have a lot of money to spend on rent.
    The problem you outline is part of a large problem in our society. Many people don’t want to pay more taxes, but if everyone contributed to a central “pot,” government at whatever level could create some subsidized housing for the unemployed or working poor. The alternative to financing or helping such govt. assisted housing is the “trickle down” or voluntary charity approach, and ironically many if not most of the people who contribute to such charities are middle to lower-middle class people, not the ones who live in the McMansions. Locally Terry McDonald at St. Vincent de Paul has done wonders at getting grants to build low income housing, but there’s only so much one person or organization can do.

  4. avatarMarti says

    I am not surprised by either the content nor the quality of writing in this article. The content mirrors much of what is happening all over the United States….why do we send so much aid overseas but are not able to help our own citizens? The education that the author received over her lifetime should be available to anyone who is willing to study and work hard. Thank you, Martha, for your concise analysis.

  5. avatarMiriam says

    Thank you for a very thoughtful article. I’d thought the idea of the wagons a good one for this sort of purpose. But the thought “is this all we can do?” is true. What does it say that we (us, the city, etc) can pat ourselves on the back for having a “solution” when it doesn’t redress the issue or do much more than get people off the streets-ish.

  6. avatarM Zoe Brady says

    Excellent article! I was ashamed to see these plastic covered, freezing spaces for people to sleep in. I can’t help but wonder if we won’t find dead people in the morning after a freezing night or two. It seems cruel not helpful. Maybe in the the other seasons it will be better. Eugene is not really liberal. Concerning ourselves with the welfare of others less fortunate is no longer popular in our culture.

Please Share Your Thoughts - Leave A Comment!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.