Imagine that you could line up every single Oregon household struggling to pay the rent. Then, alongside them, you lined up every household in Portland, far and away Oregon’s biggest city. Which line would be longer?
If you guessed the line of renters, you’d be right. Oregon suffers from a devastating housing crisis, and renters stand at the epicenter of the emergency.
Half of all renters in Oregon spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities — what experts define as being “cost-burdened.” In 2016, Oregon had about 298,000 cost-burdened renter households, more than the total number of households in Portland.
The numbers get worse when you dig deeper. A quarter of all renters in Oregon are spending more than half of their income on housing. When housing costs drain so much income, families often must make agonizing choices, such as skipping meals or visits to the doctor.
In the worst cases, eviction and homelessness follow — with devastating consequences for families, especially children. A recent, excellent series by The Oregonian explored the emotional and academic toll that housing instability takes on children.
Not surprisingly, low-income families are having the hardest time paying the rent. Nearly two-thirds of all low-income renter households spent more than half of their income on rent and utilities. And because Oregonians of color are far more likely to rent and to be low-income than non-Hispanic white households, they are more likely to struggle to keep a roof over their heads.
The Oregon legislature has taken some steps to confront the housing crisis. Its recent decision to raise the state’s document recording fee, a move expected to generate some $60 million per budget period to invest in affordable housing, is a welcome move.
But the legislature needs to do far more. One obvious step is to reform Oregon’s biggest housing subsidy, the mortgage interest deduction. Right now, as the housing crisis batters low-income renters, the mortgage interest deduction continues to deliver most of its benefits to well-off homeowners. An equitable reform of the state mortgage interest deduction would free up hundreds of millions of dollars to tackle the housing crisis.
The housing crisis is real — especially for Oregon’s low-income renters. And that is exactly where the legislature needs to focus its attention and resources.