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'Hunger is an income problem'

Kulongoski, at Medford forum, links economic, social hardships in state

Solving Oregon's hunger dilemma will require tackling its close cousin: overpriced housing, Gov. Ted Kulongoski told a Medford gathering Tuesday.

But before anyone can effectively grapple with either issue, the people of the state have to realize there's a problem.

I'm not convinced yet that citizens understand the problems of hunger, of poverty, of affordable housing, Kulongoski said. How do I put this in the lap of every Oregonian?

Better education, increased community collaboration and frank talks between people who profit from a booming housing market and those who don't: Those ideas and more were suggested as immediate actions during what was billed as Kulongoski's third annual Hunger Summit.

There has got to be a real willingness to look at what we want our community to look like, said Christie Van Aken, social services coordinator for the Jackson County Housing Authority. Good-thinking capitalists need to be at this table, talking about how to win the war on poverty.

— To be sure, Oregon's hunger problem is no longer the worst in the nation, Kulongoski noted. The state's level of food insecurity, which topped the charts at 6 percent in 1996-98, has since dropped to about 4.3 percent ' and it's expected to fall even further.

But being ranked eighth in the nation for hunger is nothing to be proud of either, especially when most folks worried about their next meal are already working hard to earn it.

Hunger is not a food problem, hunger is an income problem, Kulongoski said.

He was speaking to a crowd of more than 80 social service workers, community activists, fellow politicians and others. There's clearly a connection between the cost of housing and the rate of hunger, Kulongoski added.

More than half of people in Oregon who receive emergency food boxes are spending more than half their income on shelter, the governor said.

In Jackson County, nearly half of the region's renters pay more ' sometimes far more ' than the recommended 30 percent of income for shelter.

In a region where the median sales price of a house spiked 23 percent from 2004 to 2005, topping &

36;284,000, relief seems elusive.

Participants in Tuesday's gathering broke into small groups to brainstorm solutions ' with some familiar results.

Specific proposals included implementing a real estate transfer tax of one-tenth of — percent on the price of properties above &

36;200,000, with proceeds paying for construction of affordable housing.

I think developers and builders owe something back economically to this community, Van Aken said.

Such a plan has been considered by Ashland officials, but is widely opposed by real estate and development groups as a thinly veiled sales tax.

Other suggestions for change ranged from tangible actions such as making existing housing programs more accessible to clients and increasing education to altering the basic fabric of the nation's economy.

We're all working so that people with money can make more money because of the sacred free market, said Sean Gordon, an advocate for the homeless from Ashland. What can we do to regulate that?

Organizers of the event, held at ACCESS Inc. of Medford, said the gathering itself was the beginning of a community conversation, and, thus, a step toward progress.

But in a month when he is promoting community Home Harvest Dinners to raise money for hunger relief, the governor reminded the crowd that the real audience for their efforts was the general public.

Sometimes I come up with a solution, he said. And they're saying, 'What's the problem?'

Reach reporter JoNel Aleccia at 776-4465, or e-mail ?Hunger is an income problem?"jaleccia@mailtribune.com.