The Housing Crisis: A MultDems Interview with Mercedes Elizalde, Public Policy Director at Central City Concern

Central-City-Concern-Elizalde

Britton Taylor, MultDems Communication Chair, recently chatted with Mercedes Elizalde to get a better understanding of the housing crisis in Multnomah County. What follows is a condensed and lightly edited version of their conversation. 

Britton:
Is it fair to say that the housing issue is the most important issue in Multnomah County at the moment?

Mercedes:
Yes. The crisis is more visible than ever, and because of the housing ballot measures that were passed several years ago, people are now very invested in this issue and what is being done (or not done) to solve it.

Britton:
Was the Portland Housing Bond (passed in 2016) or the Metro Housing Bond (passed in 2018) enough money to solve this problem?

Mercedes:
It’s important for everyone to know that developing new housing takes time. Central City Concern currently has two buildings under construction, and a grand opening is happening this month. Many other affordable housing providers are also building and opening new housing right now. The goal for the city bond was to build 1,300 housing units, but we are projected to have 1,500 units. Metro’s goal was 3,900 units, and they are expected to blow past that projection as well. Even so, the bond money alone won’t produce nearly enough housing.

A study conducted by the consulting firm ECONorthwest on behalf of the state shows that Oregon needs to build nearly 30,000 new units of housing per year for the next 20 years to keep up with demand. And, according to those same numbers, the state needs to build nearly 1,500 units per year to house its homeless population. Directly providing housing has been shown in multiple studies to be the most cost-effective way to transition people out of homelessness.

We must keep building. If we stop building, we are going to fall even further behind.

Britton:
What are the biggest misconceptions when it comes to solving this problem?

Mercedes
There are a lot of misconceptions. We keep trying piecemeal solutions (one family at a time) when this is in fact a systemic issue. We should not be waiting for people to become homeless before we offer them services. We must be thinking of systemic solutions to prevent homelessness from happening in the first place or these issues will persist. The fact that housing is commodified in America is a huge problem. We limit it for the sake of maintaining its value and we under build in our communities to maintain cost growth. Back to your question, the biggest misconception is about shelters. People need to know that shelters do not reduce homelessness. They can reduce harm, but they are only temporary intervention. Central City Concern’s core belief is that people need three things to break the cycle of homelessness: health care, a home and a steady income. These are the building blocks literally everyone needs. House keys end homelessness, and access to peer support, physical and behavioral health and economic support keep people housed.

Another misconception is that substance use disorder alone is a driver of homelessness; with increasingly dangerous substances like fentanyl and P2P meth, I understand why people might think that. However, the key indicator is actually the accessibility and availability of behavioral health services. The easier it is to access health care, the less likely someone with a substance use disorder will struggle with homelessness. Unfortunately, with the massive delays in Measure 110 funding implementations we are seeing more folks than ever who need behavioral health services but highly limited access.

And as much as people want to feel like we are past COVID impacts, our communities are still very much struggling with fallout.  

Britton:
As you know, People for Portland has proposed a ballot measure to fix the housing crisis, which was rejected by Metro lawyers. I’m assuming they will try again. What is your POV on their strategy?

Mercedes:
The most egregious part of their proposed measure is repurposing money that is earmarked for increasing permanent housing placements to be used to build temporary shelters. This will only prolong the homelessness crisis in our city. Opening up shelters is hard to do; it can take just as long as opening new housing. And shelter programs often face neighborhood opposition. Even one of the major donors of this effort is themselves suing the county to stop a new shelter from opening.

Britton:
What else is standing in the way of making substantive progress?

Mercedes:
I think dismissiveness and low expectations are a serious issue. I’ve heard a City Commissioner say that some people cannot be housed and that temporary shelter might be as good as it’s going to get. It’s really unfortunate to hear this. The pandemic caused massive changes and even closure of programs that have not yet bounced back. There is huge demand for new services and new programs, and hiring is harder than ever. This has absolutely contributed to the visibility of the need. But again, I would also point to more systemic issues at the federal level. Only 1 in 4 households that qualify for the Housing Choice Voucher Program (Section 8) actually receive it. That leaves local communities to serve the other 75% who are struggling. The Housing Choice Voucher Program needs to be available to everyone who needs it. Not having it in place only incentivizes our system to wait until people are very sick to intervene, and we will never be able to do it fast enough in that kind of system.

Britton:
What do you say to people who are frustrated with the lack of progress? 

Mercedes
There are no easy fixes here, but I’m hopeful. For example, Central City Concern is a member of a collaborative team along with Transition Projects and the Mental Health Addiction Association of Oregon. We’re launching outreach and navigation teams to go into camps and meet people where they’re at, offering “on the ground” services and support. It’s long-term work; however, we know this model works.

Solving homelessness will take money and long-term community commitment coupled with consistent political will. Together, we must build a future that is more resilient when it comes to houselessness and poverty. This will require long-term investments in housing, primary care and social services. We must have leadership and vision that invests in solutions each and every year in order to succeed. You can follow Here Together to learn more and get involved.

Editor’s note: The Platform of the Democratic Party of Multnomah County includes this legislative action item:  “We recognize that there is a housing crisis in our local communities and across the state. We insist that Multnomah County and the City of Portland to develop affordable housing for individuals and families with zero to moderate incomes.”

Britton Taylor, Mult Dems Communication Chair