A housing symposium held at the Pendleton Convention Center Aug. 30 was a lesson in contrasts for Wallowa County, highlighting the obstacles faced in a county with a population of nearly 7,000 compared to issues faced by significantly larger communities.
While the situations in the two communities are radically different, the path to addressing the housing issues is similar.
It begins with an action committee, which commissions good research and identifies a goal and then moves on to partnerships.
Pendleton is preparing for an influx of hundreds of workers drawn by a dozen new companies, some high tech who are either already building in Pendleton or are making serious inquiries about moving there.
Wallowa County, in contrast, is unprepared for an influx of dozens of workers drawn to the county by a few companies. The county is unable to house its existing seasonal workforce, working families, retired individuals of all economic levels and individuals with disabilities, fixed incomes or enduring generational poverty.
Like Pendleton, Wallowa County will need partners, federal and state assistance and a knowledge base in how to deal with the housing problem.
Among the first steps will be creating an action team to gather the appropriate housing research documents that support requests for funding. Oregon Department of Land Use and Development requires a housing study accompany any request for state funding and it helps with selecting priorities. The study would also be a valuable tool in attracting developers.
“If you understand the size of housing you need, there is some predictability with regard to renters,” said Susan Badger-Jones, Eastern Oregon outreach manager for Energy Trust of Oregon.
Pendleton, as an example, has created a 152-page comprehensive “Analysis of the Housing Market.”
The analysis of the market includes population trends and household trends (considering the needs and income of millennials, for instance); an overview of the Umatilla County economy (considering incomes, current growth and growth potential); a detailed record of housing supply, tenure and cost patterns; an accounting of the current housing supply; a hard look at both housing demand and affordability both now and projected; and consideration of the market for downtown housing, as well as recommendations.
No such research exists for Wallowa County.
While Umatilla County commissioners, funding agencies, business developers, land developers, housing agencies and others are now involved in the Pendleton housing issue, those entities and individuals were brought on board over several years by a housing action group.
“Normally, a group formed to address the situation and seeking grant money would come to us for a letter of support or something else,” said Wallowa County Commissioner Susan Roberts.
The primary obstacles to developing a study appear to be financial (how would the Wallowa County study be funded) and the limited capacity of a small community.
“I think we have to consider the capacity of our public jurisdictions,” said Sara Miller of the North East Oregon Economic Development District in Wallowa. “While there may be some innovative solutions –– whether it’s Accessory Dwelling Units (such as “granny flats” built next to family homes) or other types of zoning –– we have very limited capacity in our jurisdiction.”
There may be state aid available to both conduct and fund a housing study and several private foundations offer technical assistant grants for hiring consultants with specialized expertise.
Aid from another source may also be available. Becky Baxter, program and policy coordinator for the Infrastructure and Financing department of Business Oregon expects to announce new funding of pilot projects designed to assist business development, soon.
(The partners an action committee develops may make all the difference. See the accompanying article for a success story.)