Affordable Housing Strategy: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

There have been homosexuals in the military as long as there have been homosexuals and militaries, but only in the last 30 years has the issue become a social movement. Recruiters and field commanders articulated the irrelevance of sexual preferences to their line of work years ago — “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Generals had a different view, based on the findings of generals and strategists before them. The top-level view was that mixed sexual preferences could hamper combat readiness — even though mixing genders and mixing races had both been more successful than not. Generals adapt slowly — they learn from previous mistakes, but that often leaves them fighting the last war.

I’ll come back to DADT in a little bit, but my topic today has nothing to do with soldiers or sex. It’s about that shed in your backyard, or that garbage disposal you installed 20 years ago, or the sleeping loft you use when grandkids come to visit.

Somebody once asked Ken Kesey why he still lived in Oregon, when his career allowed him to live anywhere. “In Oregon,” he replied with his trademark readiness, “I can still build a 12-by-16 shed and not ask anyone’s permission.” He was right about that, but not if you want a light inside that shed, or a sink, or if it’s too close to your neighbor’s property, or if it’s taller than a certain height.

Even so, Kesey was only technically incorrect. I bought a house with a little shed out back. A previous owner had lived in that space — with an illegal wood stove — when his marriage was coming undone. When my own marriage unraveled, I was offered a sleeping space that was similar — and also unpermitted — at a friend’s house.

We all know stories like these. A converted garage, a loft space where we “store” a spare mattress, utility rooms with more utility than we’ve admitted to the powers that be. You probably didn’t know that installing a garbage disposal may have required a permit and an inspection. We all use the wink and nod system.

And so we are like the soldiers and field commanders who codified their neglect of one of the rules that the generals kept insisting couldn’t be changed. We don’t make a big deal out of it, hoping that the higher-ups will do the same.

But there’s a social movement afoot that soon will demand that we confront it. Gay soldiers and those who supported them came to resent how shadows were being used to protect them when life experience was demonstrating that no protection — and so, no shadows — should be necessary.

Oregon is facing a housing crisis. Rents have become so high that people who work every day sometimes have no safe place to sleep. From my own tiny sliver of experience at the Egan Warming Center, I’m seeing at least twice as many guests leaving before breakfast is served “because they have to get to work.”

If we haven’t passed the tipping point, we’re fast approaching it. Soon, most of us will know somebody who has been unhoused in Oregon, at least for a little while.

Something will change when it feels to most people like something has to change. Leaders at the city, county, and state levels are watching this closely, but they may not be sure how best to respond. They might follow President Clinton’s example and embrace the solution that’s already being used.

Clinton’s announcement capitalized on the relevant experience. He capitalized their phrase and made it his administration’s policy: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It was meant as a bridge — a temporary policy. Once shadows and shame were removed from the situation, the best solutions would be brought to the light.

Local activists for the homeless are asking the legislature to direct the Oregon Building Codes Division to allow local building code inspectors to suspend certain building code enforcement for tiny houses for a few years. If we can trade enforcement for education during that time, important lessons for affordable housing may reveal themselves.

Staying out of sight only affirms those who are still fighting the last war.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) blogs at www.dksez.com.