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Guest column: Hopeful, troubling developments on homelessness front

Each one of us bears the societal costs of inaction

By Bill Van Nostran

Published on July 5, 2018 12:01AM

Illustration by Noel Thomas

Illustration by Noel Thomas

The Daily Astorian has published three timely and thought-provoking housing articles recently.

The first (and most hopeful of the three) describes a pronouncement by the Bornstein Seafood Company that a) it will raise its minimum wage to $12 per hour, and b) the company has purchased an apartment building close to its processing plant, with the intent of making rooms available for employees.

On its face, this encouraging, It appears to be an advantage for fish processing workers, as well as a positive development toward stemming the tide of homeless people who have jobs on the North Coast. Not only is $12 per hour well ahead of both state and federally required minimums, but housing — within walking distance to work — could be a fantastic employee benefit. But, before blithely congratulating Bornstein, such proposals should be judged on results and not intentions.

The Federal Labor Standards Act prescribes an hourly minimum pay rate of just $7.25 (it has not been improved since 2009). Gov. Kate Brown signed into law a tiered plan in 2016 that has moved the Oregon minimum wage steadily upward (from $9.25 to $10.75) for Clatsop County. Bornstein’s wage proposal, though a step in the right direction, is still 20 percent below what politicians and labor unions are lobbying for. Activists support minimum standards which enable full-time workers to afford basic necessities — $15 per hour has become synonymous with a living wage.

Federal guidelines set 30 percent of personal income as the definition of what affordable housing costs (or should). At $12 per hour, monthly rent of just $625 is the limit of what could be reasonably regarded as affordable, no matter how convenient the newly purchased apartment building might be.

Many Bornstein employees work part-time. Even if a worker gets 40 hours, much of their workforce is employed only seasonally. So, I wonder how many affordable units there will be, as well as how many seafood employees may be eligible for a lengthy lease?

If any are eligible and rooms can be priced affordably, but 63 percent of Americans are a $500 financial surprise away from crisis, how does a seasonal worker afford first and last months’ rent and a damage deposit?

Rising rents a problem

The second article is far more troubling for those of us who are interested in ending the heartbreak and reversing this trend toward homelessness.

“Six months past the expiration of deed restrictions reserving one-fifth the units at the Emerald Heights Apartments for fixed or low-income tenants,” complex owner Edita Smith has announced plans to make “major renovations” to 60 (of 300) units for the purpose of raising rents “closer to what the Astoria rentals’ market will bear.”

Previously regarded as affordable, the Emerald Heights Apartments are now home to a number of individuals and families who may not be able to afford to live in the complex at the new monthly market rates. And if, indeed, Emerald Heights is among Astoria’s most affordable apartment houses (and vacancy rates among the other affordable rentals in the area are at or near zero availability), then where are 60 displaced Emerald Heights tenants to turn?

Entrepreneurs are entitled to a return on their investment. Landlords take risks on market price fluctuations and vacancies. They may not be directly responsible for the insurmountable gap between tenants’ incomes and expenses.

But rising rents are a growing problem for workers. Their pensions are under assault and their bosses fail to pay living wages. They are pushed beyond their limits.

Each one of us bears the societal costs of inaction, of rapid incarceration, and of vagrants living below the Riverwalk, loitering under business awnings and wandering North Coast streets. Our municipalities also bear the community costs (on tight budgets) for frequent misuse/abuse of our parks and storefronts, compromises to first-responder times and attentions, and overuse of emergency rooms and services.

The unanticipated consequences of so many going without food, housing, prescriptions and insurances are borne by all. And I suspect these costs are far greater than any boarding house, soup kitchen, or day center we could design or imagine.

Structural solutions

The third article, validates that there exist a number of abandoned properties and/or derelict buildings throughout Clatsop County. Warrenton City Manager Linda Engbretson is just the latest municipal executive or elected official to lament — despite the recent and welcome North Coast growth — that some unoccupied, no longer used or usable buildings remain as “a blight on the appearance and livability of our community.”

This is noteworthy because, within discussions about homelessness solutions convened by/for the city of Astoria, the comment has been made, repeatedly, that: “Clatsop County lacks sufficient (affordable or available) commercial square footage and any or many (vacant or buildable) parcels of land.”

Now, I have not lived here very long, and admittedly know very little about what proposals have been considered (and previously rejected) regarding foreclosed, idle, neglected and unoccupied properties in town.

However, I am familiar with some structural solutions which mitigate homelessness. Examples include building an intergenerational support facility on a vacant lot where a school once stood, contractors donating money for a day center where a showroom once stood, and neighbors making a rooming house (for a number of clean and sober, homeless people — with jobs) where a hotel once stood.

Bill Van Nostran is pastor of First Presbyterian — “The Yellow Church” on the corner of 11th and Grand Avenue in Astoria.


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