To Fill The Housing Gap, Oregon Needs Thousands Of Construction And Government Workers

Oregon’s housing crisis is worse than before the Covid epidemic; a state economist told lawmakers Wednesday.

Oregon has one of the highest homeless rates in the U.S., with 14,600 people seeking secure homes in 2020, or 2.5%. According to the Interagency Council on Homeless, only Washington, California, Texas, Florida, and New York had more excellent rates.

Josh Lehner from the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis told the House Interim Committee on Housing on Wednesday that the growing difference isn’t due to a population explosion. Instead, Oregon’s population has kept pretty stable over the epidemic. But Oregon’s household count rose between 2019 and 2021, said Lehner.

“People broke out on their own, ditched housemates, and desired more space because of the spreading virus,” he claimed. The size of homes reduced during the pandemic, but the number of households soared, and new housing units couldn’t keep up.

Lehrer said boosting land availability, turning it into buildable lots faster, allowing more units to be built, and cutting or stabilizing development costs would help bridge the gap.

But he focused on boosting the construction workforce in the private and public sectors. To create additional units, we need more workers, he said. Want more units? Hire additional workers.

Oregon Office of Economic Analysis

He claimed Oregon needed 13,000 extra construction workers annually to fill housing gaps. He stated it would be hard to find these workers in a tight labor market.

He claimed city and county planning departments would need 400-500 additional public sector staff annually to approve, permit, and inspect these new housing units.

Tamra Mabbott, planning director of eastern Oregon’s Morrow County (pop. 12,000), asked Congress to aid smaller municipalities with planning.

Other presenters at Wednesday’s session discussed housing development impediments, protecting affordable housing, and initiatives for the homeless.

Deb Flagan of Hayden Homes and Emily Reiman of DevNW, an Oregon nonprofit building affordable housing, said many Oregonians couldn’t afford a house.

Hayden’s business plan is to develop homes for households making 100% to 120% of the median income, said Flagan. In Oregon, the median household income is $91,800, which can buy a $402,933 home. But Oregon’s median home price is $512,100, a difference of $110,000. The difference widens when interest rates rise.

“We have a fundamental disparity between what it costs to create a modest new housing unit, be it a single-family or an apartment, and what most Oregon citizens can afford,” said Reiman.

She added that DevNW can create 1,000 to 1,200 square feet for $400,000. A family with a median income can afford a $240,000 mortgage in Lane County.

She advised states to produce realistic housing needs estimates for different income categories.

Oregon Needs Thousands Of Construction And Government Workers
Oregon Needs Thousands Of Construction And Government Workers

Once we know the need across income levels, how can we realistically expand the supply of affordable Oregon homes? And how (can) we be honest about the degree of subsidies needed to generate the correct number of homes at the proper income levels so families in their communities can afford their rent or mortgage? This will be a crucial discussion for years.”

Need Partnerships

Throughout Wednesday’s session, the importance of cooperation among state and local governments, nonprofits, and private builders was emphasized. Hearing speakers suggested these agreements could help with affordable housing.

Private builders and government officials disagree on the most fundamental impediments, said Rebecca Lewis of the University of Oregon’s Institute for Policy Research and Engagement.

She cited a survey showing that 82% of private builders feel the time required to secure licenses is a barrier, but only 15% of government personnel thought the same.

Other speakers, such as Sean Edging of Oregon’s Department of Land Conservation and Development, recommended better coordination between state and municipal governments.

Draft suggestions from the department ask for stronger government participation and “innovative, flexible investment sources” to help construct housing projects the market won’t create on its own.

The existing method, in which municipalities take stock of buildable property inside their urban expansion borders and assess housing capacity, has led to “decades of underinvestment and a lack of comprehensive housing production response,” he added. It’s time to consider “the full scope of home development impediments,” he says.

The committee heard about programs for Oregon’s 16,000 unsheltered. Kenny LaPointe, executive director of the Mid-Columbia Community Action Center, said preparations are underway to establish a facility in The Dalles with 36 non-congregate shelter beds and a multi-agency assistance center for houseless and low-income residents. He said that state, local, and private parties support the project, which might be a model for other areas.

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