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Time for a New Approach to Oregon's Affordable Housing Crisis?

Advocates for social housing point to the success of the "cost-rental approach" in Vienna, Austria. (David Evers/Flickr)
Advocates for social housing point to the success of the "cost-rental approach" in Vienna, Austria. (David Evers/Flickr)
April 10, 2018

PORTLAND, Ore. – What would it look like if the United States took a few tips from European countries to tackle the affordable housing problem?

A new proposal from the People's Policy Project takes those tips and explores how cities could build government-owned housing.

Unlike public housing, so-called "social housing" would be open to people of all income levels, with higher-income tenants paying more to subsidize lower-income tenants.

Report coauthor Peter Gowan says Vienna's cost-rental approach provides an intriguing model. Municipalities could subsidize loans for the initial construction costs and then, tenants' rents would pay the city back to cover the upfront costs.

"Where the U.S.'s housing policy has fallen down compared to the more sustainable models in countries like Finland, and cities like Vienna, is that the costs aren't covered," Gowan explains, "which means the cities have a really strong incentive to never build social housing."

Gowan says once the project is paid for, rents would go to the city and potentially provide a significant source of revenue.

Half of all renters in Oregon spend more than 30 percent of their incomes on rent and utilities, according to the Oregon Center for Public Policy; one in four spends more than half their income on housing.

Opponents of government-owned housing are convinced that the best way to make housing more affordable is to get government out of the way. Gowan admits the biggest hurdle for such a proposal is its political viability.

"We're saying that this proposal can only ever be operationalized with political will – and that's completely true," he states. "So, what we need is politicians who have a vision, and who can say, 'We're going to do the right thing, even if it is politically difficult right now.'"

Gowan emphasizes that social housing can and should be tailored to each location, which means it wouldn't necessarily look the same in a big city versus a rural area.

The report says federal support would probably be necessary to get large-scale developments off the ground. It suggests 10 million units over 10 years would be a viable goal.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - OR