Being kind to our unhoused neighbors means creating housing they can afford

I have been having an ongoing dialogue on Facebook, and in a meeting this past week, with some of the folks behind a free, somewhat mysterious event called the Choose Kindness Celebration, to be held today (Sunday) at a swanky downtown Eugene venue, the Shedd Institute for the Arts.

The event will feature (I have discovered through diligent research) an hour-long plenary with speeches from the mayor of Anaheim and others, followed by five breakout sessions, including one on what the event euphemistically calls <the housing challenge>. (In a city with more than 2,100 unhoused, 61% of renters paying more than 30% of their income for housing, and a need for 13,500 more units of housing renting for $625/month or less.) Lord have mercy.

But that is just one aspect of the tone-deafness of the event — which I do hope all concerned people will attend, so we can use our knowledge and talents to help make it a productive catalyst for concrete action rather than yet another exercise in civic feel-goodism. (I was encouraged, for instance, to read about Kindeavor, a collaboration between the campaign and Community Supported Shelters that results in paid work for CSS residents.)

The real head-scratcher is the juxtaposition with Eugenes reality, which was revealed to the entire nation a few weeks ago: this medium-sized college town has the most unhoused people per capita of any city in the United States.

More than much-publicized Los Angeles.

More than my former, now prohibitively expensive city of Seattle.

For this small area (Lane Countys population is around 379,000; Eugenes population is 166,000) to have more than 2,100 people unhoused (from the Lane County Point-in-Time Count, done in January 2019) is a moral disgrace and a civic failure of epic proportions.

How on earth can we be celebrating ourselves as Choosing Kindness?

Signs for this event popped up this summer, mostly around churches, but I was never able to load the website listed on the sign or otherwise determine how to contact the organizers. And I never ran into any of them, though I spent the summer and fall learning my way through the local issues of housing and homelessness, attending meetings of various housing-related advocacy groups and quasi-government citizens commissions and visiting many innovative microdwelling options right here in town.

Here is a slice of that dialogue, with hyperlinks and some more details added:

<I am not frustrated or angry (except at the City Council majority that has led us to this place). I am excited about the young renter candidates who are running for crucial City Council seats who know housing issues, and who have already declared though the primary election is not till May

I am spreading the word at every opportunity that next years Council elections matter. Eugeneans who support #HousingActionNow should not ignore Council elections, as they may have done in the sleepy past.

Eugenes #1 status in unhoused people per capita is NOT inevitable or un-fixable. And it is no surprise. It is the result of City leaders deliberately pursuing policies, for years, that virtually ensure a housing shortage, given that the towns population increases every year. When neighborhood leaders say they dont want any type of lower-cost housing anywhere near them (NIMBYism), and City leaders coddle them instead of insisting that all our neighbors deserve housing they can afford, of course this happens.

Good news: We can begin to turn it around in a hundred ways, immediately, by telling Councilors we want lower-cost housing allowed in every neighborhood — the message of the new, equity-driven, housing-savvy movement called Yes In My Back Yard, and the key message that should be imparted at this Kindness in Housing session.

To significantly improve our situation, this solution-oriented framing must become the accepted wisdom in this town, as opposed to some themes I have observed in real life and in local online groups and, of course, NextDoor:

  • Claims (against the data) that our unhoused neighbors are all mentally ill or substance abusers, or have all come here from somewhere else.
  • Hopelessness (<it is such a big problem, it cant be solved, no one knows how to solve it>). This attitude has been encouraged by the pronouncements of many city leaders, and no wonder — it lets them off the hook for their unwillingness to take needed but controversial actions, failure to seek out and embrace innovative solutions, and overall abdication of their civic duty to educate and mobilize citizens to meet what the City Council declared four years ago was an emergency.
  • Demands that government fund housing for all. Eugene has a housing deficit of 13,500 rentals at $625/month or below. With the cost of affordable housing built by nonprofit developers clocking in at $150K-$250K per unit, there are many more efficient + inexpensive ways of creating low-cost housing for all but the most destitute or in need of professional help, plus creative new ones emerging all the time.
  • Blind anger and ranting at capitalism. Capitalism, if harnessed wisely by ethical people, as has been done repeatedly with success by creative Eugeneans, has great power to help get us out of this mess. In a post next week, I will share some of the solutions we have seen on our summer and fall tours.

Published by Sherri Schultz

Writer & change-maker exploring micro-dwelling in Eugene, Oregon. Founder of Springfield/Eugene MicroDwellers: https://www.meetup.com/Micro-dwellers .

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