Overcoming barriers to housing

By Robert Landauer – editorial columnist for The Oregonian, April 16, 2000. Not available elsewhere online.

We have systems that strive to feed the hard to feed, clothe the hard to clothe and educate the hard to educate. We don’t have a system yet to house the hard to house.”

Andy Miller of Portland’s Bureau of Housing and Community Development goes on to say incomes that are too low and rents that are too high cause most residential instability.

Application fees, long waiting lists and security deposits are other menacing barriers. Rental applicants also can be tripped up if they have a history of leaving a dwelling in poor condition or dirty, are noisy or inconsiderate of neighbors, or are slow to pay rent.

Even skirting those stumbling blocks, Portland’s poor must still struggle to find out what shelter is available. The elderly and people with physical disabilities or mental illnesses find the task especially hard. Public and nonprofit groups work from thin, outdated lists to find special-needs housing.

And this housing must be mated with support services in order to work well for both landlords and tenants.

Enter a task force of city and county agencies and landlord and tenant groups. Their goal is to create a clearinghouse of housing and housing-support services instantly accessible to every service group via the Internet. Then, when social workers or volunteers have clients in crisis sitting in front of them, they can connect them to the right mix of shelter and services immediately, not just hand out a list of phone numbers.

A data warehouse would reduce evictions, street homelessness and the overloading of the short-term shelters, transitional housing and acute-care beds for the mentally ill, Miller predicts.

Lacking this tool, Multnomah County suffers. As support services that keep people in housing have declined here, the burden has risen on back-end services. Our failing to provide suitable housing and services for the special-needs poor has put them at greater risk of being lodged in hospitals and jails. That approach is more expensive for taxpayers than facing the issues at the front end.

Technology can help ease this problem only if it is part of a coordinated effort. Continuous public investment in housing and support services, such as Commissioner Erik Sten’s proposal to put a $5 million line item for affordable housing into Portland’s annual budget, is a vital component. Public and private grants are needed, too, to set up the programs. Specifically, the area’s high-tech sector will be courted to come forward with equipment, money and expertise so that every housing agency in the region can be linked.

Adding support services to the housing information is essential, Miller says. “We hear from developers of special-needs housing that they have some access to capital for bricks and mortar, but that they can’t responsibly use it without some guaranteed funding for services.” In short, development of special-needs housing trails availability of special-need services.

Those services can take many forms. One approach that excites some service providers is a tenant-assistance program similar to Employee Assistance Programs that many large employers have adopted as a productive fringe benefit. The idea is to have an independent professional who can respond early to any brewing threat to landlord/tenant relationships just as assistance programs try to do with threats to the employee/employer relationships. The key is the capacity for early intervention.

This exercise is far more complex than setting up an Internet address. Public agencies and nonprofit groups that serve the special-needs population often know little about one another or about the needs of landlords who might house their clients. Building an effective data clearinghouse not only requires bringing all the service delivery components together, but also keeping them linked.

The goal is not just to help the poor find shelter but to keep it — to stop the needless churning that leads to job loss, homelessness, mental-illness relapses, jailings . . .