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More Than Half of Grants Pass Tenants Are "Rent Burdened"

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More than half of Grants Pass renters spend a third or more of their income on housing, recent census data shows. By federal housing standards, that means they are rent burdened.

Due to its high housing costs, Oregon law requires the city to host a housing forum by the end of the year, and it did so on the last possible day.

In an interview with JPR, Sam Engel of AllCare Health — who studies health and poverty in Grants Pass — explains what it means to be rent burdened and how housing can impact people's health.

SAM ENGEL: So rent burdened is typically defined as folks [wherein] 30 percent or more of their income is being paid for housing and utilities. It's what Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, uses to define a household that is cost burdened by living in a home. Severe rent burden is when you're spending greater than 50 percent of your income on housing and utilities.

REPORTER: How does something like that impact your health?

ENGEL: There's some direct ways that it impacts your health. Nobody really gets to pay part of their rent in a month, but what people do do is skip part of their grocery bill. So you're looking at higher calorie, lower-cost foods, typically high sodium — things that over time can have a real negative impact on your health. And then indirect impacts are things like stress, chronic stress, and then other side effects of that

REPORTER: Grants Pass is a pretty small, rural town. You don't really expect to hear about it having the same sort of housing struggles as some of the larger urban areas like Portland. Why do you think Grants Pass has such a big disparity between people who can't afford housing and those who can.

ENGEL: One of the things that [we] look at is our population growth relative to how rapidly we’re building housing, and then the types of housing we are building. We are building a lot of single-family detached housing, which is great — people like single-family detached housing. The downside is that we're not building a lot of affordable housing to go along with it.

And so our population is growing rapidly: we're at about 36,000 people now. We're building slower than our population is growing, and one of the things that separates this housing crisis from the housing financial crisis that we'd seen about a decade ago is that there's an actual supply and demand issue.

REPORTER: One of the initiatives in Grants Pass to bring more programs into the city that would help people go from being homeless to being housed was this transitional housing ordinance that would have allowed non-traditional buildings to be built within the city, but the city council denied it. Could you talk a little bit more about it?

ENGEL: Yeah, the Oregon transitional housing standard, the way that I understand it is that they took a look at what is happening around the state that's been effective with transitional housing. So things like tiny houses — or cottage developments, accessory dwelling units —and then try and create some potential codes for cities to adopt that will make it easier for building departments and planning departments to evaluate new projects that don't stick with standard design.

REPORTER: Why are these projects important for Grants Pass to have?

ENGEL: There's certain types [of transitional housing] that we're really comfortable with; we like domestic violence shelters, everybody's comfortable with that model, but it's a type of transition. You're moving people from one situation that's not working well into a stabilizing situation, so that they can then go and be self-sufficient and live and work. I think for a community to be effective in building this type of pipeline, you need to have a wide variety of options so that people who have a wide variety of individual barriers and their own circumstances can be case managed and navigated into the option that's the best fit for them and their family.

Some residences are going to be more appropriate for an individual than another. Some will be more appropriate for unsheltered youth, some would be better for families altogether. We'd like to have all of that, so we can recognize individuals and families where they are and then be able to offer them support as they need them.

There are always going to be programs to do a really good job serving one population, but they're not designed to serve another one. Having multiple programs in a community isn't an indication that those programs aren't working. Hopefully, it's an indication that we're working hard to solve different types of a similar problem.

And those those programs are informing one another. There's a lot of work being done and a lot of it’s being done together, because this is a very large, complex problem that didn't get built overnight. We know we're not going to solve it overnight. But we also know that we have to continue to work on it if we're going to get progress.

April Ehrlich is JPR content partner at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Prior to joining OPB, she was a regional reporter at Jefferson Public Radio where she won a National Edward R. Murrow Award.