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Nonprofits to help Washington County thrive

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Community Action and Vision Action Network are joining forces to address social issues. They're considering going out for a countywide bond to help pay for programs to help the less fortunate.

Two local nonprofits have embarked on a mission to improve the lives of low-income Washington County residents.

Whether they'll succeed, however, is largely dependent on many of those same residents' willingness to pass a ballot measure that would prioritize funding for three specific socioeconomic issues.

Community Action — the county's largest nonprofit addressing local housing problems — and Vision Action Network, a nonprofit that brings together groups with like-minded social-action missions, have teamed up to tackle affordable housing, workforce training and early learning development across the county.

Together, they call themselves "Washington County Thrives."

"We're all in this together," said Community Action Executive Director Renée Bruce. "It's a very complex, comprehensive issue … (so) what can we do to continue to ensure Washington County is looking after all its citizens?"

With backing from the Washington County Board of Commissioners, Thrives is expected to begin polling residents later this month to gauge community support for paying for programs that address these issues.

VAN Executive Director Glenn Montgomery said, that levy wouldn't solve the county's problem on its own, but it's a start.

"Even what we're proposing we know is just a piece of the solution — it's not the whole solution," Montgomery said. "There (are) going to have to be other innovative ways to address these issues … it's taken more time than some people would like because there are many in the trenches who have felt this sense of urgency for decades.

"This couldn't come any sooner. Yesterday was not soon enough."

Cyclical priorities

Having affordable housing, workforce training and early learning development are systemic issues, Montgomery said, and can be key factors in whether a person can land an adequate-paying job and is able to afford a home or basic amenities for their family.

"While a good majority of people are thriving in the county, there are still a significant number of people who are living on the edge," Montgomery said.

One in eight county residents is at or below the federal poverty level, and about 20,000 county residents make less than $20,000 per year, he said.

"It's a staggering statistic, considering everybody thinks Washington County is the so-called 'economic engine of the state,'" Montgomery said.

And though there has been an increase in people moving to Washington County, "Our rate of poverty is growing faster than our general rate of (growth)," Bruce said.

Early on, Thrives' leadership realized that finding affordable housing, workforce training and early learning development could greatly influence whether a person is successful in life.

"We (have) a high percentage of people classified as the working poor, and without any kind of additional skills they're never going to get a career-track job," Montgomery said. "They're going to continue to buss tables and work in low-wage sectors and likely propagate that for their children … who will (also) have a difficult time breaking out of that cycle."

Seeking a solution, Thrives' leadership looked at how they could get parents the training needed for higher-tiered jobs, and ultimately came to what Bruce called the "two-generation approach."

When children are put into quality care while their parents are working, she explained, it not only places the kids in a better position to get early learning development — which has shown to increase their likelihood of success as adults — but it also gives their parents the support they need to maintain a quality full-time job.

"If we're all thriving, then we'll continue to be a place where people want to live and work and play," she said.

For such a workforce training push to be effective, he said, employers need to get involved. "We need them to make an investment in their local community by putting some of their own money into those programs and helping them scale."

Nonprofit and for-profit developers will need to collaborate — perhaps coordinating efforts with city officials — to find ways to get affordable housing built, Montgomery said.

"This is going to require some political will," Montgomery said, suggesting that individual cities either purchase or make available to developers already-owned parcels of land specifically for the purpose of building affordable housing.

Still, he remained circumspect. "There are very few developers that are willing to make a lesser return when housing supply in a place like Washington County is low across the spectrum."

Given the option between a high-cost, high-return home and a low-cost, low-return affordable home, Montgomery said, "(Developers) are going to go after the greater profit. That's just how the market is working."



By Travis Loose
Reporter, Hillsboro Tribune
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