By Ariadne Wolf
Salem rental prices are skyrocketing, forcing many residents into states of temporary or even chronic homelessness. Increasing rental prices over the past year have left some of the city’s most vulnerable citizens in jeopardy as intersectionality transforms the forms of oppression they already experience into a major barrier in the way of an affordable living situation. In spite of recent legal gains, tenants are struggling under undue burdens.
With Portland being the epicenter of the state’s housing crisis, many inhabitants are fleeing to Salem in search of accessible housing. The Guardian reported in February that many Portland residents have erected tents and other temporary shelter. With housing prices soaring 15 percent in 2015, many Oregonians have been left with no place to live. African-Americans in Portland have seen a 48 percent increase in homelessness and women a 41 percent increase. Portland Mayor Charlie Hayes instituted new emergency regulations to protect those forced to use these tent cities. Some residents have fled to Salem in search of apartments they can pay for and simply opt to commute to Portland or Beaverton for work. This has driven the price of housing up for everyone.
Jayne Downing’s work with survivors of domestic violence at the Center for Hope and Safety in Salem has demanded she become something of an expert on barriers to housing locally. From her perspective, the housing market in Salem has shifted significantly of late.
“From my perspective, the housing market has shifted significantly in just the last few years. We used to have no problem finding housing for survivors, even if they had barriers (such as poor rental history, criminal charges, etc.). Now, we have difficulty finding housing for individuals that really have few to no barriers,” Downing said.
Further issues include landlord perceptions regarding youthful irresponsibility, as Downing notes. “There is about a one percent vacancy rate in our area and this leads to greater competition, higher prices, and longer waits for housing to become available in certain areas. I can imagine students have additional challenges, in that landlords would be hesitant to rent to students that may move out in less than a year when they can rent to someone for longer periods of time. There are also the fears, whether valid or not, that individuals who are younger will be more likely to have parties and/or not take care of the property.”
Some of the difficulty in addressing issues of homelessness lies in the way in which those gathering data skew the statistics. The Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency issued a housing report in 2015 which cited fewer than 2000 Marion County residents as chronically homeless, yet considered only 45 percent of the residents of transitional or emergency housing as fitting this category. Only residents who have been homeless for a continuous year, or at least four times in a three-year span, qualify as homeless within this study. Thus those residents negatively impacted by the recent rise in housing costs were not counted as “homeless” for the purposes of this study.
The scarcity of housing has given landlords the freedom to participate in the market in a manner that would make any capitalist proud. Though minimum wage increased several months ago by 50 cents, this will not be enough to accommodate increasing housing costs. The rental companies have been steadily raising rents, leaving many personal accounts of families forced to exit places they have lived for years or even decades. These people flood agencies such as the Salem Homeless Coalition with need that these organizations simply do not have the capacity or resources to fill. Though most Salem residents have several stories based on first-person accounts of homelessness or unwarranted evictions, appropriate statistics simply do not exist yet.
Though lawmakers in February made significant steps, these measures are unlikely to alleviate the bulk of the problem. The Senate Committee on Finance and Revenue recommended inclusionary zoning, a regulation that would demand developers include affordable housing in their plans. The House passed a bill that requires landlords to give further prior notice before raising rents on month-to-month leases. Though each of these steps represents major progress, relatively speaking, the bill did not increase tenant protection from no-fault evictions.
This does not change the reality that landlords have developed increasingly strict rental terms, or that they remain willing to terminate leases on month-to-month rentals with little notice. Many Salem residents are finding it easier to seek housing based on personal associations and word of mouth than to place themselves on waitlists that are sometimes years long. Residents seeking affordable housing also face two to three year waitlists.
Other landlords are taking advantage of the housing market to place extensive demands on their tenants, including expensive pet deposits or similar extreme measures. Though landlords cannot legally refuse to rent to a differently abled person with a guide dog, this protection does not extend to people with service dogs for emotional disabilities or PTSD.
To review tenant protections, read the appropriate section in the Residential Landlord and Tenant Act.
Salem Weekly listed a variety of resources designed to meet the needs of people either temporarily or chronically homeless. For more information, review the Salem Weekly Homeless Resource Guide 2016.