Opinion Political Economy

I Could Have Housed Someone, but I Didn’t.

The Joyce Hotel closure represents all that is wrong with urban housing.

The other night, I was at my favorite Egyptian food cart on SW 9th Ave, just a few blocks from Joyce Hotel. This five dollar meal has become an affordable option for me, but as recently as the beginning of this year, it was out of my price range. All I could really swing was covered by SNAP benefits. I’ve worked hard to turn around my financial status without exploiting all of my good relationships — I have been the beneficiary too much for one adult life. Even now, I’m one or two financial fouls away from homelessness. It was at this moment of revelation that I was asked for spare change.

The request came from a man who looked tired of his situation. I looked the fellow in the eyes, because he was able to do the same without shame for himself or me. I reflected his understanding for my position, non-verbally requesting the same respect from me. I considered the relationships of this man. Why does he need me, a stranger, right now, and not one of his friends or family? I wondered, searching for any sign of significant drug use in his face. I could not detect it. I gave him all that I believed I could offer: one dollar.

I sat down to eat my gyro next to a table of several men, who, based on my judgement of their appearance and demeanor, were all corporate employees somewhere, and this Saturday night was marked with beers and food carts. I speculated on life in their shoes; that it could be normal to spend $50 throughout a night of activity. For me, that gyro was my night and no more. They didn’t give to the beggar.

After I finished eating, he walked up to my table and said, “So I take it you’ve been burned.”

He was slender with sharp facial features. I guessed he was in his fifties, but could also be a weathered forty-something.

“Not from someone asking me for money, necessarily, no,” I replied, welcoming him to sit down. “We’re all getting burned, and the political discussion….”

He interrupted, “You know I’m just trying to keep my bed at Joyce Hotel, it costs $19 a night.” He seemed to want to reassure me.

“You don’t look like someone with a drug problem, otherwise, I wouldn’t have given you even a buck,” I admitted, being honest with him.

“No, not at all.” He explained that his medical condition required him to strip nude, clean an area of his body and apply some kind of balm, and that if he doesn’t re-up his bed within the hour, Joyce would fill it with the numerous others on their waiting list. “After you, I’ve got $17 to go.”

I think he saw me — my attention — as his best hope. “You know I don’t have any money, right? This city is crawling with a whole bunch of people spending lots of money right now.”

“And they don’t give anything up.” His frustration was percolating.

“I’ve struggled with housing too much, as well.” I wanted him to know that.

I told him about my line of service work, and how the known six-figure executives are consistently the most demanding and the worst tippers. His sympathy for me seemed to dissipate, maybe because I have a job at all. He wasn’t telling me why he was in this situation and I wasn’t telling him much either.

It struck me how little I can do right now on a shoestring budget. I suppose THRU and myself both had $20 in that very moment to buy his bed, but I just didn’t accept it into my head. I think about every dollar as the potential last. Maybe that’s a poverty consciousness I have to break through, but it’s just what-is. I could have housed someone for a night, but I didn’t. I walked away without ever getting his name but I realized that I got the story for Joyce Hotel that I needed.

Joyce Hotel on March 30th, their first eviction day.
Joyce Hotel on March 30th, their first eviction day, which was extended through April. Photo by Taylor Eisele.

Extended stay hotels were ubiquitous to downtown economies as recently as the 1970’s. My friend, artist Jerry Soga shared his account of growing up in one of those joints. His parents owned Pine Hotel, along with numerous Japanese-Americans with lodging downtown in the 50’s. With just seven rooms, located near Burnside on SW 6th, that cost $0.75 per night, a family rose up to become homeowners, to provide a life for Jerry and his sister.

In those old times of relaxed city regulation, my friend recalls tenants starting barrel fires in the freezing rooms. The building was definitely no frills, but it was a room anyone could afford. Perhaps regulation helps prevent that kind of substandard condition from taking place (no heat is against the law), but I would suggest the situation is much worse than that today. Because now, in the 21st Century, across from the building where Pine Hotel used to be, sits R2D2 (Right to Dream Too), a city-approved “homeless” encampment for tent-dwellers.

In other words, there was a time that, without government intervention, the economy could support just about anyone seeking housing.

Has the cost of basic housing risen 38 times over? That is remarkable. Joyce Hotel is the bottom rung of the economic ladder, for people with just enough purchasing power to stay in housing, and they need to raise $856 per month to keep a private room with a television. It is the shared “hostel bed” accommodation that costs only $19 per night, that’s $570 for a 30-night stay.

Jerry Soga (right) and his Sister in front of Pine Hotel.
Jerry Soga (right) and his Sister in front of Pine Hotel (left). Photos courtesy of Jerry Soga.

During times of robust economic activity leading to the escalation of the millionaire class into a billionaire class, it has become more acceptable to maintain the status quo of real estate profits and relegate people to tent villages, than to build an economy that supports a range of incomes, let alone guarantees housing for all people.

Despite all rooms being occupied every night at Joyce Hotel, at above-market rates for studio apartments, totaling an easy six-figure annual income, the building is garbage. According to a recent Street Roots report, “The building does not have a functioning elevator, it has water penetration on the upper floors due to a failed roof, and it needs a seismic retrofit.” The building has old furnishings and so on, it has the look of a place that believes everything can be handled with a coat of paint and duct tape. The price tag for renovation is $14M.

I visited Joyce after learning from a Portland Mercury story that the building was changing owners, and with that, the hotel would be closing. An employee who wants to remain anonymous explained that Joyce Hotel held a lease with the building owner for decades. That means the owner is responsible for repairs, but just didn’t do it.

Conversations with three employees (all of whom didn’t want to be on record) left the impression that they care about the people and the place as if they were caretakers of something important, despite having no training to deal with the homeless population. These people really aren’t the homeless anyhow, with numerous residents renting monthly on an indefinite basis, backed by social security income, or something else. Some people in there have been displaced, along with thousands of others in this rapidly changing city.

Two employees had been working there for over ten years, discussing how in a previous era, a previous economy, it was there for temporary employees, laborers working on temporary contracts and such. That makes sense to me, in 1960, if you rolled into town, you probably didn’t have anything but a bag. You found the nearby hotel, used their payphone to update your family, and checked in for a weekly basis. At some $10 a week or so, you eventually got your life in order enough to find a permanent place. So living in hotels was normal — it was not something to be ashamed of.

My income may have doubled in five years, but housing has outpaced me, so I’m actually struggling more than ever.

Today, as I find myself coming to grips with an extreme rental market, I am nostalgic for that era. Thirteen years ago, when I moved here with a couple hundred bucks, I elected to live in my truck until I found a monthly room in a house. That wasn’t so long ago but I can hardly recognize Portland as the same city. Aesthetically, culturally, it has become a commodity versus a personality — a product rather than a culture. The only affordable rooms are through my immediate friendships, friendships I’ve developed as a resident of 13 years.

Economically, it is booming, so I have found that my wages have increased, but it’s meaningless. My income may have doubled in five years, but housing has outpaced me, so I’m struggling more than ever. This is a common story in Portland.

The extended stay hotel offers something else valuable: Immediate housing without credit checks or cash deposits. Today, the move-in fees for a standard room in a house, shared with several young adults, typically includes first and last month’s rent, along with a deposit, and the monthly rate is about $700, give or take. If I don’t have two grand in the bank, I can’t move in. Nobody wants to talk about it, but almost nobody has two grand in the bank. This is a statistical fact, look into it for yourself. The only thing I have been able to rely on are my relationships, and this is how I find affordable housing.

The Georgia Hotel, two blocks away from Joyce, operates as an old school extended stay hotel. Their rates are a little higher, but I don’t know if it’s any nicer. And since that place fills up just as fast as the Joyce, closure of Joyce Hotel most likely means more people sleeping in tents, not rooms.

The City of Portland is interested in the renovation project, maintaining the building for a similar purpose it serves now, but in a safer, healthier way. This seems great, but I question the efficacy of such a program.

If the city manages to buy and renovate the building, it will come at the price at of $14M. This would serve the same number of people that are being displaced right now, only that renovation would require time, so the plan contributes to the housing shortage immediately.

Suppose instead the city took that $14M and applied it as rental credits directly to individuals in need. Then a single tenant in the Joyce, at the monthly rate of a single room, would only eat up 0.00006% of that cost. In total, simply paying for housing would serve 1,363 destitute individuals for one year. And if you shack up couples and friends, it could house hundreds more.

Providing stability gives someone a fair shake to find a means to income and develop their community.

The economy then needs to support these people, which means a wide variety of jobs for a variety of personalities, with a housing market commensurate to the wages of those jobs. Providing stability gives someone a fair shake to find a means to income and develop their community, where they can bond relationships that may save them in future crises.

Our governments don’t propose the necessary change to our economic system. We are distracted by the clever cup and ball tricks of affordable housing schemes, but they don’t resolve the baseline issue of wealth disparity. So long as one person owns ten properties which sit vacant in a given night, that means someone is going homeless. (Duh!) This mentality is out of control because we defend an economy right now that cannot support the individuals living within its grip. If that isn’t failure, I don’t know what is.

Corrections: A previously published copy stated that Pine Hotel was $0.25 per night, and that the cost of basic housing has increased by 72 times. The correction stands at $0.75 per night, and 38 times. The statement that “housing has quadrupled” was also replaced “housing has outpaced me.”
Sean Ongley

By Sean Ongley

Co-Founder of THRU Media. A background in non-profit, music, and radio preceded my ambitions here. Now, I aspire to produce new media and publish independent journalism at this site and beyond.

2 replies on “I Could Have Housed Someone, but I Didn’t.”

We stayed at the Joyce one night. I’m a working person but still couldn’t really foot a room elsewhere for what we wanted (just a place to crash, basically). It is certainly just that!

I was impressed my boyfriend (we’d just gotten together) wasn’t a whammy-pammy and was willing to go all ghetto (we didn’t know anything except it was the cheapest place in town) with me. But man does that place need some work (as you pointed out in your essay). It’s crazy the amount those folks end up paying for after one month of $19 per night. Your essay brings up a real issue: Where are the people who are willing to stay in places like The Joyce expected to stay now? And what is so wrong/criminal about needing an affordable room or a temporary living situation?

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