We can’t ‘bootstrap’ our way out of an affordable housing crisis

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category icon Editorials, Opinion

As we get closer to the 2020 presidential election year, the issue of affordable housing — or, rather, the lack of it — is likely going to resonate with voters across the political spectrum.

Already, two of the top candidates for the Democratic presidential ticket, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, have come up with housing plans designed to address the nation’s affordable housing crisis and help families afford basic housing.

Earlier this year, the National Low-Income Housing Coalition’s annual report on the state of the country’s housing described an untenable situation in which more than 70 percent of low-income American families are “severely cost-burdened” by housing, paying more than half of their income on rent.

“One of the biggest barriers to economic stability to make ends meet is the severe shortage of affordable rental homes,” the report’s authors note. “Three out of four low income households in need of housing assistance are denied federal help with their housing due to chronic underfunding.”

President Trump has pushed for reductions in federal assistance for low-income households as well as strict work requirements for people in need of rental assistance. And before you say, “Well, why shouldn’t people asking for a handout just get a job?” know this: the majority of those in need of housing assistance are either already already working, elderly or disabled.

“Of the eight million severely cost-burdened extremely low income renter households, 84 percent are seniors, persons with disabilities or are in the labor force,” the NLIHC report, “THE GAP: A Shortage of Affordable Homes,” noted. “Many others are enrolled in school or are single adults caring for a young child or a person with a disability.”

The housing gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” is very visible in Camas, where the 2019 NW Natural Parade of Homes will showcase multi-million-dollar, gorge-view houses in Dawson’s Ridge and will be the most expensive parade in the tour’s 42-year history. On the flip side, Family Promise of Clark County this week welcomed its first homeless families to its new Camas-based day center (see a full story on the Family Promise in next week’s Post-Record, which publishes on Thursday, April 11).

Linda Winnett, director of Family Promise of Clark County, told The Post-Record Tuesday that affordable housing is a huge issue in Clark County.

“The difference between what you can earn as a living wage and the costs of housing … far exceed the wages we’re earning as new and young families,” Winnett said. “All it takes is one major expense — a car repair or medical bill — to tip the scales.”

City leaders in Camas are just starting to address affordable housing. At a Feb. 19 Camas City Council workshop, Camas’ senior planner, Sarah Fox, led an affordable housing discussion. The city’s higher-than-average median income ($101,167) combined with a lack of affordable housing and a growing low-income and senior population means many in Camas are considered “cost burdened” by housing, Fox noted.

And if you think it’s just those who don’t have jobs or seniors on a fixed income struggling to make ends meet in Camas, think again.

As Fox noted in her Feb. 19 presentation, 72 percent of Camas’ city employees and 27 percent of Camas School District employees earn 50 percent or less than the area’s median income — $50,583 a year or less.

Those who earn 50 percent of the median income can afford a $1,400 a month rental or buy a home in the $200,000 range. But when city staff searched for affordable housing, they discovered that the average rent for the 44 single-family homes listed in Camas for rent is nearly $2,300 a month.

The city doesn’t have too much in the way of multi-family housing, either. While 53 percent of the city’s land is residential, only 5 percent is multi-family. The rest, 48 percent, is for single-family homes, which tend to be much more expensive.

City leaders are beginning to look at various tools they can use to help the local affordable housing crisis, including updating zoning regulations, codifying the city’s 2035 affordable housing policies, increasing multi-family housing and looking for partnerships.

We urge them to put these goals on the fast-track and give affordable housing the focus it needs.

The nation’s lack of affordable housing won’t disappear if we all just work harder and “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.” Rather, it will take a concerted effort by local, state and federal leaders to help stem the growing disparity between the few who have an abundance of housing and the many who are struggling to make ends meet after paying their mortgage or rent.