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The Primary Driver of Homelessness? Housing Underproduction and High Costs

At the Missing Middle Housing Fund, we obsess about the reasons housing costs so much and takes so long to build – and we focus on the consequences of housing underproduction for Oregon’s workforce. It’s in our name. The most visible and most talked-about consequence of housing underproduction, however, is homelessness. Homelessness has risen everywhere in Oregon, and its root cause is ALWAYS the high cost of housing, driven by too few homes. The MMHF focuses on middle income housing, since it's the least built; but the consequences of not building enough housing at EVERY price point include increases in homelessness.

Recently, we came across an op-ed piece that Aaron Carr, Founder and Executive Director of the Housing Rights Initiative, guest wrote on the newsletter blog Noahpinion titled, “Everything you think you know about homelessness is wrong”. Carr argues that homelessness is not primarily a mental health problem. Not primarily a drug problem. Not primarily a poverty, weather, or progressive policy problem. Rather, the primary cause lies in the substantial cost of housing.

The places that have the largest homeless populations have the highest housing costs and the least amount of supply. According to Carr, the places with the best track records of reducing homelessness do two things: 1) build ample housing that prevents homelessness from occurring in the first place, and 2) quickly and efficiently create enough homes to address homelessness that does occur. While we don’t focus on housing for the homeless, we DO focus on the reasons behind housing underproduction.

We have produced significantly less homes in recent decades than we used to, especially when compared to the 1970’s – when Oregon built over 330,000 homes, half of which were apartments and other attached homes. In the last decade, most of the homes created in Oregon were single-family detached homes, and by most estimates, we’re now 140,000 units short to serve our population. The need grows every year. We need to DOUBLE housing production from roughly 15,000-20,000 units a year, to at least 30,000-40,000 units per year to deal with the backlog and expected growth.

To achieve these targets, we will need to build smarter, faster, and at a lower cost. The Missing Middle Housing Fund’s mission is to create workforce housing that targets those making 80-120% of area median income (AMI) by lowering both the time and cost associated with homebuilding. We can do this by discovering, funding, and leveraging innovations across four key quadrants of the homebuilding process: labor, financing, design/assembly/materials, and policy and regulations. A singular innovation in one of these quadrants can help make a difference, but when connected with other initiatives, projects, and organizations across the other three, the sum becomes greater than its parts.

Over the coming weeks, you will hear more from us as we take a deeper dive into each one of these quadrants and discuss specific examples that can be modeled across our state. Together, we must tackle the heart of the problem – more housing – with faster and lower cost solutions.

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