Two dozen people sitting in folding chairs balancing paper plates on their laps gathered Saturday at the United Church of Christ in Ashland to begin a movement. The group, calling itself the Renters Free Breakfast, plans to meet monthly to create a coalition of people concerned with the housing crisis in Ashland and other Oregon cities.
“Everyone has a right to decide where to call home,” said Jason Houk of Oregon Jobs with Justice, who organized the gathering. He described the difficulty of living in a community with a less than 1 percent vacancy rate, according to the Ashland Housing Commission. “In the last year and a half people are being squeezed out of our community. Working class people are being pushed out,” Houk told the gathering.
The meeting comes in the wake of a new report from Children First for Oregon putting the number of homeless students statewide at a record 21,340, or 3.7 percent of the state’s public school enrollment.
Nearly 2,000 pre-schoolers are also homeless. The agency reports that rising rents and earnings not keeping up have trapped families in a housing crisis. The US Census confirms that the typical family earned $1,300 less than its inflation-adjusted income in 2007, before the recession.
People have not recovered from the housing collapse of 2008.
“I was working 55 hours per week and volunteered in my community and now I’m on the street. My landlord raised my rent 400 per month with 10 days notice,” said Marcus Harper. Harper said as a result of losing a steady place to live it was impossible to hold on to the rest.
He is one of the thousands of examples of those newly homeless as the numbers rise throughout the West. Every large city has declared a crisis and despite efforts to slow the tide, homelessness continues to rise.
“We have to lift the state ban on rent control and eliminate no-cause evictions. We have to demand the city funds the Housing Trust Fund,” Houk said about first steps toward creating a tenants’ voice in Ashland. He pointed to Portland Tenants Union as an example of people who came together to demand rights as renters.
The city of Ashland Housing Trust Fund was established to assist with affordable housing but is not funded at set levels annually. Mayor John Stromberg has also pointed to the fund as a piece of the puzzle in dealing with the housing emergency which faces Ashland.
Michelle Linley of the Jackson County Housing Authority told those gathered that she would volunteer to help walk people through paperwork and the system to assist in whatever way she could. She also acknowledged the difficulty for tenants in finding affordable housing. “Waiting lists are a year out. Once a person has a housing voucher (for housing subsidies) for more than a year, you’re in. No matter how much you make after that. We have people making $60,000 per year on vouchers.”
Others in the meeting discussed the number of vacant homes, suggesting perhaps homeowners could be offered incentives to rent the homes to people at affordable levels. “Some communities waive or lower property taxes to owners to get the houses occupied,” said Linley, referring to an idea floated in Chicago. Others wanted to see property managers “held accountable.” “These property managers say they are just doing what their owner clients want, but they advise those clients. Maybe they should have to do a social needs assessment to let property owners who don’t live here know what’s happening,” Houk told the group.
He also encouraged participants to invite their city councilors and public officials so they could hear the stories of their community members affected by the lack of affordable housing and the ensuing homeless crisis as a result. “Invite them to come and help create solutions,” Houk suggested.
While The Free Renters Breakfast was sponsored in part by Councilor Carol Voisin who leaves office at the end of the year after losing her bid for mayor, she was not in attendance nor were any other members of the council or others in elected office.
The group plans to meet monthly in hopes of becoming a voice for renters and also to expedite change through petitioning and organizing around the issue of the growing number of working families and children with nowhere to live.
Since 2007 the costs of rent and childcare has increased dramatically, by 10 and 18 percent faster than inflation, respectively.
Jackson County has been listed as one of the least affordable places to live when earnings are factored in, according to the Housing Commission. The overall problem of homelessness among children and families was most intense in small towns and rural areas around Oregon, with one in three children reporting some form of homelessness in Butte Falls.
“It is a crisis, but people don’t speak about it like it’s a crisis. It’s a slow motion tragedy,” said Houk.