Housing Matters Union County

Written by Garrett Christensen

Introduction and Outreach

Having easy and affordable access to housing is an essential part of any community. Unfortunately, as some residents of Union County may know, accessible housing and associated resources are not always available. Inflation, regulation, a fluctuating materials market, simple miscommunication and any number of factors can cause safe, affordable housing to be out of reach for community members. Students in particular, already burdened with the costs of college, may find it especially difficult to access decent housing near campus. Fortunately, some community groups, such as Housing Matters Union County, are rising to the occasion and making accessible housing and community resources that much more accessible.

Housing Matters Union County (HMUC) was founded in 2016 by a group of concerned community members at the Zion Lutheran Church who took an interest in the state of local housing accessibility and the community’s concerns regarding it. As HMUC coordinator Cammie Miller put during an interview with The Voice, “They realized that housing has some struggles here, like finding housing, keeping housing, enough housing for everybody, quality of housing.” The group began reaching out to members of the community, local organizations, and various social service agencies to generate a discussion and get a clear picture of the state of housing in Union County. Recurring meetings began, representatives were selected, and the group organized into a true collaborative effort, officially forming Housing Matters Union County at the end of 2017.

Photo: Garrett Christensen

Currently, HMUC operates as a grant-funded community organization with a proper membership system and team of elected executives, according to their website, though volunteers are still a major part of their efforts. According to Miller, HMUC is not a nonprofit, but involves many participating nonprofit groups. Their mission, also according to Miller, is “safe, stable, affordable housing for all.” HMUC lists its primary methods for change as regulatory reform, innovation, and public and private resources.

Keeping with their original focus on the problems facing local housing resources, HMUC continues to operate as a platform for discussion, research and solutions for community housing resources and associated issues. Miller noted that HMUC recently collaborated with and assisted the city of La Grande in conducting the Housing Needs Analysis project to further research resident housing issues and rent burden. An HMUC member has been appointed to the project committee with the hopes of incentivizing housing developers to focus on low income housing.  Miller also discussed how HMUC strives to lower tensions and miscommunication surrounding controversial or misunderstood issues and projects, stating, “We help with the middle ground, like community meetings or talking to the city council or figuring out how to help the community understand that homelessness and warming stations and things like that don’t necessarily have to be feared.” One final communicative reform HMUC strives for is to create a unified source or database for housing information in order to avoid wasting time and money on numerous applications and ventures. 

Though communication, research and outreach are core aspects of HMUC’s mission, this is not to say they do not take an active role in more tangible projects. According to Miller, HMUC recently finished assisting the warming station for the season, helping primarily with the general oversight and functions of the project. Miller later commented on the importance of the HMUC’s involvement, noting, “The warming station couldn’t have happened without Housing Matters in any way, financially or functionally.” HMUC co-coordinator Wendy Gorham has been collaborating with a company known as My Screening Report, which allows landlords to establish profiles to be viewed by renters, in addition to allowing renters to review their own credit reports before submitting to a landlord, all through a free, singular application process. In addition, HMUC has been working with the Veteran’s Village project, providing funding, organizational support and the establishment of an advisory committee for the group, which is working to build 10 tiny homes for veterans near Greenwood.  

HMUC is continuing its outreach and survey efforts, recently extending them to EOU. Collaboration between EOU students and HMUC is not completely new, with Miller noting that EOU students have been volunteering at the warming station and generally sharing their experiences with finding good housing. Miller further stated, “We don’t want to overlook a valuable portion of our community.” 

The actual planned outreach to EOU primarily involves research, recruiting and above all, listening, with the hopes of being able to draft new plans and solutions for student housing issues. At the core of this process is a planned series of focus groups covering the demographics of La Grande (including students), taking place this month. The student focus group will comprise ten total students and ask five primary questions regarding housing issues and solutions:

Photo: Garrett Christensen
  • “When you have had success in meeting your housing needs in the past, what has worked for you?”
  • When you have housing needs, who do you go to for help and what does that help look like?”
  • “In your experience, what were your biggest barriers in meeting your housing needs?”
  • “Have you felt looked down on or discriminated against while looking for housing or housing resources, and if so, how do you respond?”
  • “If you had a magic wand and could suddenly create solutions to meet your housing needs, what would they be?”  

A flyer will be distributed containing specific information for the focus group and how to volunteer. Ten student respondents will be picked at random to participate.

For any students looking to get involved with HMUC beyond the focus group, several options exist with varying degrees of commitment. HMUC meets regularly on the third Monday of each month via Zoom. Attendees are free to speak and participate, providing suggestions for improvements, sharing stories about their experiences and concerns regarding housing and generally participation in the conversation. Zoom meetings are open to the general public but require invitation to join. Further Zoom information is available at the bottom of the page. 

Anyone looking to get more involved can apply for full membership, which comes with a small participation reward of $35 for each meeting. Miller made it clear that anyone looking to get involved within specific projects or areas of focus, such as the warming station, are welcomed and can be added to individual volunteer pools as needed.

For anyone looking to share their story and experiences with the public, or to read up on the stories of others, the HMUC website includes a local stories page. The page provides an email link for readers to send in their stories. As Miller put it, “The people living it know how to fix it.”

Wrapping up, Miller and Gorham emphasized the importance of community support for those struggling with obtaining proper housing, from students having to live in their cars, to those living in low income housing being stereotyped as “welfare queens” and generally treated like a drain on the system. 

Through continued communication, community outreach and local cooperation, the HMUC and its associated partners will continue improving housing access for Union County and lower the financial burden for those who, even temporarily, call this home. Such progress, however, would not be possible without the support of the community. EOU students, whether struggling with housing or not, are encouraged to reach out to HMUC even if only to offer some suggestions or share a personal experience. For anyone looking to join the Monday meetings, volunteer or apply for membership, or get details on HMUC, please email Cami Miller or Wendy Gorham for information. Additional HMUC information is freely available on their website. Links and contact information provided.

Cami Miller:           cmiller@neonoregon.org

Wendy Gorham:     wgorham@neonoregon.org

HMUC website:      https://www.hmucoregon.org

HMUC stories page:   https://www.hmucoregon.org/people

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