Street Roots calls for city, state to change relocation policy to mirror federal law

The story about the West Hotel sheds light on a small but significant loophole in Oregon’s housing system that can have a major impact on the lives of people experiencing poverty.

The MacDonald Center is creating 42 units of affordable housing in downtown Portland by demolishing a 27-unit, run-down 100-year-old building currently housing extremely poor and vulnerable people. It is to be commended for its effort to actually improve the city’s affordable housing stock for our downtown neighbors.

The problem is, according to local and state laws, the organization is not mandated to move the current tenants out of the West and into safe, comparably affordable housing, leaving relocation efforts up for grabs.

When housing developers receive federal funding, they are legally required by the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Act, passed by Congress in 1970, to help the tenants find housing and pay for their relocation.
The Macdonald Center did not receive federal money for the $10 million dollar project, so they are not obligated to find housing for the tenants currently living at the West. According to the MacDonald Center, they are working hard to make sure all of the tenants are supported and have been working with a number of services and housing providers to secure housing for the current tenants.

Unfortunately, it may not be enough. Time will tell.

The MacDonald Center has a remarkable record of working with some of Portland’s most vulnerable populations and does an amazing job at engaging and providing services for people living in poverty, specifically the elderly population. Unfortunately, due to the lack of oversight by the state, they have been set up to potentially fail in relocating a small number of people who may become homeless.

We don’t blame the MacDonald Center for working to do the right thing. The affordable housing business is a complex system that even Portland’s finest find difficult to navigate. Programs to help the poor and hard-to-house are at capacity, and the private market in Downtown Portland is simply not vested in accepting low-income renters, particularly those with criminal records or other complications. With each passing year, the downtown core loses ground on the number of affordable housing units available to low-income families and individuals, increasing the challenges to private developers and nonprofits who ultimately want to do the right thing.

The City of Portland and the State of Oregon should create an avenue to mirror federal policy to require relocation services to individuals experiencing poverty. The cost of prevention is far more economical than the price of getting people back into housing once they’ve been reduced to the streets. It’s also more humane.

Locally, it’s the Portland Housing Bureau’s responsibility to ensure that any affordable housing projects, private or public, work with people experiencing poverty to prevent them from becoming  homeless. If we are going to end homelessness, we cannot simultaneously accept a process that creates it.

Street Roots editorial from the Nov. 12 edition.

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