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Let's Not Wait for the Worst to Happen - Proactive Ways to Keep Oregonians in Their Homes
A prior generation of policymakers understood that social protection should be a key priority.
*Note this piece has been edited to reflect an earlier error regarding the current status of the renter’s eviction moratorium.
A family member recently lost their job. They reached out to me with questions related to health insurance, unemployment, and housing resources. Their nervousness was wrapped up in every question. The assumptions they had made about their social, financial, and physical well-being had been upended and they were reaching for any stable ground.
Millions of Americans experienced that sort of shock in the past year and a half — that includes hundreds of thousands of Oregonians. Pandemic-induced job loss, untamable fires, and unfathomable storms disrupted lives in every part of the country. Now, many are nearing a cliff—one with immense instability, personal costs, and societal costs on the other side. According to the National Equity Atlas, 52,000 Oregonians are behind on rent. That’s a scary place to be in turbulent times.
What distinguished the lucky from the unfortunate in the last 18 months was access to social protection. This broad term refers to everything from a couch to sleep on at your friend’s house to sufficient savings to deal with an emergency root canal. The more layers to your social protection, the more resilient you are to whatever emotional, physical, or financial shock heads your way.
For many Americans, social protection is wearing thin. In the wake of the pandemic, our friends are fewer and further. About one in ten Americans lost touch with most of their friends during COVID, according to one survey. The economic effects of the pandemic have also increased economic instability. Nearly four in ten Americans could not easily respond to an emergency that cost $1,000 or more, based on a different analysis. And, Pew Research Center research revealed that almost three in ten Americans identify as religiously unaffiliated, suggesting that a faith community would not immediately rally to their side during a tough time.
A prior generation of policymakers understood that social protection should be a key priority. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, for instance, identified the freedom from want and the freedom from fear as two objectives for government in an age of instability and unpredictability. FDR then championed the re-imagination of how the government could help realize these freedoms. For quite some time, with helpful additions from President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the programs created through FDR’s New Deal helped thicken the layer of social protection experienced by many Americans—they provided more workplace protections, specified more legal rights, and funded new agencies to better monitor and respond to new economic and community challenges.
The capacity of the government to provide a meaningful layer of social protection has increasingly been in question. Programs and agencies have become beholden to special interests, unable to change their approaches to better respond to the problems facing Americans. What’s more, millions of Americans simply don’t trust their government, rendering any government program inadequate due to lack of adoption and consideration by those on the edge of a crisis.
To increase social protection we must increase support for those organizations and social institutions nearest those teetering on the precipice. In some cases, this may take the form of doubling down on a faith-based effort to house community members during the coldest nights. In others, this may be direct cash assistance. The North Star should not be from where the social protection originates; our guiding principle must instead be to thicken that social protection in whatever form it takes, community by community.
This will be particularly important in communities with high rates of folks nearing the financial precipice. One example is Lane County. Nearly 6,000 households in that county are behind on rent; the average rent debt per household is $2,300. A report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates $8,900 in social costs for each eviction — four times the average debt in Lane County.
A proactive response to keep these families in place is a must. Social protection, rather than a social safety net, means rallying support from all stakeholders prior to some disruptive event taking place.
The state’s eviction moratorium has already expired. We (private, public, and philanthropic actors) need a robust action plan for supplying renters with emergency funds or, at a minimum, facilitating landlord-tenant mediations that significantly reduce the odds of eviction.
Kevin Frazier runs the Oregon Way between grad school classes. He grew up in Oregon, graduated from the UO, and looks forward to returning in the near future.