Rentals critical in housing puzzle

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Editor’s note: Today’s editorials originally appeared in The Oregonian. Editorial content from other publications and authors is provided to give readers a sampling of regional and national opinion and does not necessarily reflect positions endorsed by the Editorial Board of The Daily News.

It’s easy to focus on how Portland’s housing crisis is hurting adults. We hear regularly how they can’t find affordable first homes. They struggle to secure reasonable rents close-in, settling for lengthy commutes or multiple jobs to pay the bills. They end up couch-surfing, living in cars or on the street.

But in The Oregonian/OregonLive’s recent series, “Reading, Writing, Evicted,” we were shown in vivid, heartbreaking detail how Portland’s ongoing housing emergency is scarring the next generation of Oregonians. Through stories, graphics and video, reporter Bethany Barnes described the trauma for the increasing number of students transferring in and out of Portland schools midyear. But they’re not the only casualties. She found the constant state of flux also detracts from the learning of those classmates they leave behind.

Barnes found a 1996 study that showed how students who switch schools often fall behind their classmates by several months, leaving them more likely to drop out. The research alsodetermined that in schools where more children come and go, the average academic achievement for all students can be as much as one grade level lower.

That’s especially disturbing considering that schools with more constant churn predominately serve poor and minority families in Portland Public Schools, a district with an already shameful record of providing an equitable education for all students.

Take Cesar Chavez K-8 in North Portland, where Ordella Reynolds teaches fourth grade. She’s lost six students and gained seven new ones since the fall. As Barnes reported, Reynolds finds that students living with the specter of regular transitions may be shy, sad or scared about their next move. Those students may need more of her help to catch up and may disrupt the class when they feel frustrated or mad that they’re behind.

There is some hope, however. Barnes highlighted work in one school district in Austin, Texas. There, officials aim to break these cycles by using a computer program to link families who need housing with options that fall within their school’s boundaries. That way students don’t lose academic gains they’ve made. They don’t lose the teachers and other school staff who invested in their progress and care about their futures. And they don’t lose the friends who can provide the support and stability that makes showing up at school every morning that much more appealing.

A private business owner and former school board member created the program in Austin. But public agencies should be able to provide this type of solution. In fact, some already do. Officials in many cities, from small (nearby Gresham) to large (Los Angeles), track commercial rental units — in some cases with helpful inspection data that determines whether they’re actually habitable.

Unfortunately, the City of Portland lacks such a fundamental tool. It’s unbelievable, really, considering city leaders have made annual declarations since 2015 that we’re in a “housing emergency.” We know we don’t have enough housing, but we also don’t know exactly how much we have.

Past Portland housing leaders have called for such a rental inventory, but it’s never been created. Numerous city memos outline explicit plans to implement a rental registration. It’s never happened.

While Mayor Ted Wheeler campaigned on the need for a rental registry, there remains a disturbing lack of urgency in the work to get it up and going. Interim Portland Housing Bureau Director Shannon Callahan confirms the registry is a relatively simple set-up, as far as city tech projects go. That being said, a “beta” version with basic information — units and addresses — won’t be ready to test in-house until June.

In the meantime, members of the new rental services commission will discuss what kind of information should be included in the database. Callahan said she’s hoping to bring the full project to the council for a vote by the summer or fall.

Portland leaders should speed up this process. They should approve the registry as soon as possible and roll it out with the critical information first: rental units’ addresses, size and approximate cost. It’s critical that such a registry also identify which school district the unit is within and, specifically, which elementary, middle and high schools tenants would attend.

City councilors can and should vote to add more data points later. Indeed, information from random inspections would surely be helpful in the future. But now, Portland’s leaders must move quickly to create a tool that could help bring some small amount of stability to families and children in need.

We’ve got a long way to go before Portland will have a roof for everyone. But we can more easily provide a consistent, safe and supportive place for children to learn. For some kids, that may be the next best thing to home.

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