The Stillwater Crossing affordable housing apartments under construction at the south end of Bend in October.
The housing and homelessness crisis in Central Oregon and statewide shifted conversations about housing development to the forefront of Oregonians’ minds. But what exactly is affordable housing, and what does it look like in Central Oregon?
Housing and homelessness were identified as the top two priorities among Oregonians last year, according to an Oregon Values and Beliefs Center survey. Housing development costs and home sales prices have gone crazy on the West Coast in the past two decades, said David Brandt, the director of Housing Works, Central Oregon’s public housing authority.
While the lexicon surrounding affordable housing and housing affordability can be complicated, there is a difference between the two, he said.
What is affordable housing and who qualifies?
Affordability is solely dependent on a person’s income, Brandt said.
“Affordability talks about the sort of common, pretty traditional and old concept that it’s not healthy for a household to pay more than 30% of their gross income toward housing costs,” he said.
No matter what income bracket, people can be housing burdened if costs are more than 30% of what they make in a year.
It all points to housing security.
If a household is paying a more than 30% toward housing, that household could be forced to make high-stakes choices. Surprise costs like healthcare-related bills or vehicle repair can put people in a position of choosing which expense to prioritize. That’s housing insecurity, which can put people at risk of losing their homes, Brandt said.
“The programs that we [Housing Works] dwell in, they’re really restricted to people that are pretty low-income, but that doesn’t mean that your average renter or homebuyer isn’t burdened. Lots of times they are, but the way these programs are structured, we can’t assist them,” Brandt said.
Housing Works has been around since 1977, and the programs used for affordable housing in Central Oregon have been around for almost as long.
One of those programs, Low-Income Housing Tax Credits or federally subsidized development, reduces the costs to build affordable housing, so the savings are passed on to renters. Almost all of the newly-constructed affordable housing in the last 20 years utilized the federal program, Brandt said.
The subsidized units are always multi-family rental units and designated for people who make 60% of the area median income. For Deschutes County, that means slightly below $40,000 per year or less for one person or slightly below $54,000 per year or less for a four-person household.
Another program within Housing Works is the Housing Choice Voucher program — or Section 8 housing — which was created in 1974 to generate subsidies for families to move into market-rate housing.
Demand has increased dramatically for both programs, Brandt said.
Housing Works has huge waiting lists for vouchers and its rental communities, Brandt said. Each time Housing Works creates a new project, he sees two to three times as many people interested than it can feasibly accommodate.
“It’s particularly bad here because the market is so hot and Central Oregon is such a popular place for people to move to, but you can go almost anywhere and find waiting lists and things like that for affordable housing,” Brandt said.
Brandt gets emails almost every day from people asking for affordable housing for themselves or their family members.
What does affordable housing look like in Central Oregon?
A wide range of housing options fit for different income levels is needed to address the housing crisis in the state and in the region, according to experts in the field.
In Central Oregon, affordable housing developers are working with heightened demand and scarce funds to meet the need.
It’s all about supporting the continuum of housing, said Scott Nordquist, the director of grants management for the Bend-Redmond Habitat for Humanity.
“There’s no single solution to the affordable housing crisis. There are needs across the continuum. There are needs in permanent supportive housing, rental housing, rental assistance and home ownership,” Nordquist said.
Habitat focuses on ownership because that creates long-term stability, Nordquist said.
“In the U.S., homeownership is generally the single biggest driver of generational wealth,” he said.
When someone buys a Habitat home, they will never pay more than one-third of their income on their mortgage. A household can eventually sell the home back to Habitat once their income increases, and they can buy a home at market rate, Nordquist said.
“That’s how permanent affordability can create generational wealth and keep affordable housing in the community in perpetuity,” he said.
Habitat’s goal is to achieve a baseline of building 20 new homes per year by 2024, Nordquist said.
Another local affordable housing nonprofit has made a similar goal.
Kôr Community Land Trust, a nonprofit that specializes in creating affordable and sustainable homeownership opportunities, received 90 qualified applicants for five homes. To keep up with demand, it has made the promise to have an affordable community open for applicants every single year, said Jackie Keogh, the executive director of Kôr.
That continuum means creating a natural flow so people can move out of a subsidized rental, like what Housing Works provides, into an affordable ownership unit, like what Kôr provides, Keogh said. In turn, people can build wealth and eventually move into market-rate housing.
Kôr homes are geared toward a sustainability focus, and they are built to net-zero energy standards.
“When we think about affordability costs, especially in Central Oregon where our climate is quite varied, sometimes you forget that an affordable mortgage can become unaffordable if a household is paying hundreds of dollars a month in utility bills,” Keogh said.
They are fully electric and complete with solar panels, so, on average, Kôr households only pay $12 per month in utility bills, Keogh said.
“That gives them the discretionary income to invest in their stability,” she said.
She’s seen some Kôr homeowners use that extra money for a child’s college plan or to go back to school themselves or receive job training.
“And that’s what we want,” Keogh said. “The other piece is that we really believe we’re building tomorrow’s housing, not just today’s housing.”