Why Not Use the Unspent Homeless Services Money on Monthly Rent Vouchers?

Rent subsidies sound like a great idea, but unless they’re accompanied by an increase in supply, they don’t help over the long haul.

Acropolis Hotel. (Blake Benard)

Since Portland can’t seem to figure out any way to spend all the money we gave them to deal with homelessness, how about giving poor folks a hand with the rent? That $250 million would pay for a whole lot of $500 to $1,000 monthly rent vouchers that could be targeted at those most in danger of slipping into homelessness. —Portland Do-Gooder

Come, come, Do-Gooder; you can’t just say “that $250 million for homelessness” and expect me to know what you’re talking about. Do you mean the Portland Housing Bond, which raised $258 million in 2016 for affordable housing? Or do you mean Supportive Housing Services, the 2020 tax measure that raises $250 million a year to provide homelessness-related services? Perhaps you’re thinking of 2018′s Metro Housing Bond, also for affordable housing? (That one was actually more like $653 million, but maybe you suck at math.)

Put together (or even apart), that’s a lot of scratch. However, let’s remember that these efforts are intended to solve Portland’s overall housing crisis; they’re not just for the homeless. Of the three entities, only SHS is specifically homeless-oriented—and even then their mandate also includes some people merely at risk of becoming homeless, which these days could be anybody.

You’ll be happy to learn that a third of SHS’s $127 million spending target is earmarked for rental assistance, as you suggest. It’s mostly short-term and rehousing support, but the 2023 budget did include around $4 million for the kind of long-term support you’re pitching. The bad news is, that’s down from $11 million the previous year—and even then, they were only able to spend 70% of it.

But maybe that’s not so bad. Rent subsidies sound like a great idea (especially when the relevant agencies are flush with cash), but unless they’re accompanied by an increase in supply, they don’t help over the long haul. If you’ve got 11,000 people and only 10,000 apartments, rents will rise until 1,000 people can’t afford them, no matter how much subsidy money is sloshing around.

Fortunately, there are hopeful signs on the supply side: A modification to SHS directing its surplus toward new construction should be on the November ballot, and just this week the Portland Housing Bureau began a process to make some of the last remaining Metro Housing Bond funds available for multifamily building projects. Whether these will make a dent in our housing deficit I can’t say. Still—and you can call me crazy—there’s nothing quite like housing for addressing a housing shortage.

Questions? Send them to dr.know@wweek.com.

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