Homelessness Crisis: The Other One Percent

Credit: Joan McGuire

Why affordable housing can’t solve Oregon’s homelessness epidemic on its own, and how one organization is laying the groundwork for business to carry the torch.   

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This story is part of a series on business solutions to homelessness.

Interior designer Jessica Helgerson makes her living surrounded by the finer things in life; but the more she saw of high society, the more she was compelled to help the less fortunate.

Helgerson decided to play to her strengths, using her connections to help the homeless. That’s how the One Percent Project was born.

True to its name, the One Percent Project asks businesses to donate 1% of overall profits to fight homelessness. Helgerson’s organization serves as connective tissue between the business and nonprofit worlds, securing funding for a range of homeless nonprofits.

The project doesn’t do work on the ground itself, but instead gives unrestricted funds to a wide range of vetted nonprofit organization.

According to Helgerson, intermediaries between the nonprofit and business community are vital for both sides of the equation.

Their model is designed to offer vetted nonprofit organizations consistent funding in the form of a tiny fraction of business profits. Thirteen businesses have contributed so far, including a $25,000 donation from Tandem Propety Mangement, as well as a $156,000 gift from an anonymous donor. 

Helgerson’s approach might sound like a gimmick, but sustained funding is a crucial element in the fight against homelessness, one which more traditional affordable housing fixes have been unable to address.

That’s because building more affordable housing is only half the battle. While low-income housing units are a perfect fit for at-risk low-income families, for many people who suffer from homelessness, “affordable housing” is relative.

“Less than 5% of the units in these [affordable housing] buildings are actually affordable,” says Sean Hubert, chief housing and strategy officer at Central City Concern.

Landlords simply can’t generate enough revenue without committing a large share of their units to market value. “If these [affordable housing units] had ongoing revenue mechanisms in place, affordable units could capture a higher percent of housing projects,” says Hubert.

For more affordable units to come online, developers need something to consistently and reliably offset the cost.

Research confirms his assertion. An economic report by Portland State University’s Northwest Economic Research Center suggests providing monetary housing assistance for the homeless, such as housing vouchers, helps to offset the loss landlords take providing affordable housing.

Unfortunately, the state Legislature is still on the price-ceiling plan. economic report, which creates more ceilings and eviction restrictions, generates no additional funding for housing voucher programs, leaving the landlords without financial incentives.

That’s why projects like Helgerson’s could succeed where others have failed. The One Percent Project works with a wide range of nonprofits that can provide rent assistance, including Portland Homeless Family Solutions.

By offering reliable, sustainable funding, organizations like hers could help with the heavy lifting required to end homelessness. While legislative efforts have gone a long way, it’s only been fighting half the battle. The business community has a chance to pick up the slack.

In the end, failure to house the homeless is a financial problem, one that will require a financially innovative solution.

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