News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Sisters rental market is very tight

Stories about the housing shortage in Sisters, often reported as a crisis, appear regularly on these pages. The focus is usually on the lack of so-called affordable inventory and escalating prices of single family homes, which is pricing nearly all entry-level workers out of the market.

Little attention is given to the rental market, in particular the lack of affordable apartments. There are literally none in the traditional sense — rents equal to 30 percent of living wage. Massachusetts Institute of Technology calculates the living wage for Oregonians as $16.85/hour for a single person, no children; $13.26/hour for a two adult, no children household – both working; and $26.53/hour, two adults, one working. The current minimum wage in Deschutes County is $12.75/hour.

So, let’s say that a young family — two adults, both working, one child — wants to rent in Sisters while saving for a down payment to later buy a home. The best they can do is a 660-square-foot, two-bedroom, one bath unit on East Adams for $1,295/month. Chances are that by the time you read this, that space will have been rented. That is the one and only apartment in Sisters Country listed on October 18.

That same family could rent a one-bed, one-bath home on Cloverdale Road for $1,600/month. The five, that’s right — five, remaining rentals are homes ranging from $2,550 to $3,400 per month, one in Tollgate and one at Black Butte Ranch, not walking distance to employment.

That family would need to earn $4,300 a month to meet the 30 percent advisable threshold. They could just afford East Adams if both made the minimum wage, but of course even Sisters McDonald’s pays over $18/hour. Our hypothetical family is OK then, numerically speaking. Technically, they could handle the Cloverdale home, too.

If one of the adults isn’t working, choosing to stay home with the child, then all bets are off. Now, the one wage earner needs to make $24.58/hour to qualify. Not a lot of those jobs floating around in Sisters; very few in fact.

What is the answer, then — more higher paying jobs or more rental units? Or both? Neither is accomplished with a push of the button. Wage growth is likely to increase faster than the number of new units being constructed. And just where would the apartments be built? There is a scarcity of buildable land in Sisters for any type of dwelling.

Area contractors and investors will tell you that their return on investment in single family homes is better. Being a landlord also comes with a host of issues, from maintenance to tenant defaults.

Rory Willard is an apartment developer in Bend. He told The Nugget, “The ideal apartment project is 40 units. Where are you going to find a piece of dirt to fit 40 units in Sisters?” He elaborated, “Until Sisters increases its urban growth boundary, you won’t see any scale of multi-family housing for years if ever.”

Willard lamented the labor shortage as working against apartment growth in Sisters.

“It’s hard enough finding crews to work in Bend. My guys don’t want to spend an hour plus every day going back and forth to Sisters,” he said. “That’s a hundred bucks a day to a carpenter or electrician.”

Apartments have code requirements that put off developers, from major costs like fire sprinkler systems to the little things like bike racks and trash enclosures. Over 80 percent of Bend’s and Redmond’s apartment dwellers are young-adult singles according to


“Sisters isn’t attractive for those in their 20s or 30s except for recreation,” he said. “Let’s face it. Sisters turns the lights out at eight o’clock.”

Looking around town, one does not readily see the number of rental properties taken as a whole. A housing stock report prepared for the City by Angelo Planning Group included data from Johnson Economics finding in 2008 that 32 percent of Sisters dwellers were located in multi-unit housing. Five percent of those were owner occupied, 27 percent tenants.

Two changes that could increase stock for low- or entry-level incomes are in ongoing, albeit controversial, discussion. One, building height. That, says Willard, would be a game changer. The other, code changes that allow more accessory dwelling units (ADUs) — also known as “granny flats,” “granny pods,” or “mother-in-law apartments.”

These are add-on living quarters that provide room for the current property to house additional people comfortably. The units are not shared living spaces — they are separate living spaces that include a kitchen and bathroom. Some ADUs are attached to the main home, while others are separated structurally from the primary dwelling unit.

In Angelo’s June, 2019 comprehensive study for the City, the report called for Code Amendments for Small Housing Types and other regulatory amendments to increase housing choices and reduce barriers to development for accessory dwelling units (ADUs), tiny homes, cottage clusters, townhomes, and other “missing middle” housing types.

Meanwhile, it remains a landlord’s market.


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