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Want people to stay housed? Help them pay their rent.

Commentary Photo by Juan Carlos Ordóñez

Photo by Juan Carlos Ordóñez

May 13, 2021By Daniel Hauser

The struggles of Oregonians to afford rent began long before the arrival of COVID-19 and will remain after the end of the pandemic, unless we take decisive steps to confront the problem. A key part of the solution is helping low-income families pay their rent.

While it may seem obvious, providing rent assistance to those unable to afford the rent is the best way to keep people stably housed. Both Congress and the Oregon legislature have opportunities to meaningfully invest in long-term rent assistance — a move that would not only help Oregonians stay housed but also advance racial equity.

Housing vouchers, a common form of rent assistance, are effective. As a recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) explains, “Rigorous research shows that vouchers sharply reduce homelessness, housing instability, and overcrowding.” The benefits don’t stop there. According to CBPP,

Stable housing has cascading benefits in other parts of the lives of low-income people. For example, children whose families were homeless and receive vouchers to rent housing change schools less frequently, are less likely to be placed in foster care, experience fewer sleep disruptions and behavioral problems, and are likelier to exhibit positive social behaviors such as offering to help others or treating younger children kindly, compared to a control group. By lowering rental costs, vouchers also allow low-income people to spend more on other basic needs like food and medicine, as well as on goods and services that enrich their children’s development.

Another benefit of rent assistance is that it advances racial equity. Oregon’s Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) have faced generations of racist economic and housing policies, leaving them more likely to be low-income and more likely to rent. They are also more likely to be “severely cost-burdened,” meaning that housing costs swallow more than half of their income. The majority of Oregonians who are severely cost-burdened are white, and so they would make up the majority of those helped by rent assistance. Yet Black Oregonians are more than twice as likely to be a low-income severely cost-burdened renter as their share of the population would predict. Similarly, Latino Oregonians are about 13 percent of Oregon’s population, but constitute about 20 percent of Oregon’s severely cost-burdened low-income renters. Thus, rent assistance would disproportionately lift up communities of color, while increasing housing security for Oregonians of all races — Black, brown, and white.

Unfortunately, right now rent assistance is woefully inadequate. The Housing Choice Voucher program, the largest federal rent assistance program, helps about 74,000 renters in Oregon. That pales in comparison to the more than 300,000 Oregon renters who are severely cost-burdened. This includes nearly 90,000 children, almost 70,000 people living with disabilities, and more than 40,000 seniors. These Oregonians are the very people that expanded rent assistance would help.

Congress and the Biden administration need to ramp up proposed increases to rent assistance. The administration’s 2022 budget blueprint would add about 200,000 more Housing Choice Vouchers nationally, a proposal Congress needs to expand significantly. While this is helpful, the need for rent assistance is many times larger. A more robust investment in rent assistance would reduce racial inequities in housing and bring housing stability to millions of Americans. “Making more vouchers available,” CBPP noted, “would mean that fewer people would live in shelters or motels, on the street, or in overcrowded homes; fewer families, seniors, and people with disabilities would have to choose each month between paying the rent and buying needed medicine or food; and more children would have access to stable housing in neighborhoods their parents choose.”

Congress is not the only government with a role to play. The Oregon legislature also has an opportunity to expand rent assistance. House Bill 2163 would launch a long-term rent assistance pilot program. This $4.5 million program would focus on three communities. This legislation is a step in the right direction. But Oregonians need not steps but leaps forward when it comes to help affording the rent.

Robust, long-term rent assistance would go a long way in helping Oregonians stay housed. Congress and the Oregon legislature need to ramp up rent assistance.