Housing as essential community infrastructure

 

Last updated 4/16/2024 at 9:36am



As a young professional who has lived and worked in Sisters for nearly four years, I have been invited to share my story for C4C’s Community Forum about local housing challenges, “Who Gets To Live Here? The Search for Local Housing Affordability.”

It was spring 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown was in full swing in Portland, when I graduated with a degree in urban planning. It was important for me that I get a job in my field as soon as possible, but as uncertainty from the ongoing pandemic continued, fewer job openings remained available.

Luckily, I was able to find a position through the University of Oregon’s AmeriCorps program called “RARE” (aka Resource Assistance for Rural Environments). Through this program, a cohort of young professionals are assigned to serve in rural communities throughout Oregon and provide technical assistance on community projects.

Once I found out that I was assigned in Sisters, I had six weeks to find housing and relocate.

I was given a living stipend of $1,700 per month — which is quite generous for an AmeriCorps program. For perspective, this stipend was comparable to a person’s income working full-time for minimum wage in 2020.

It was July when I began searching for rentals in Sisters, and units were quickly disappearing from the market. I found myself in an increasingly competitive housing market when there was an influx of “urban refugees” seeking solace in the beautiful region of Central Oregon, where COVID shutdowns had not yet fully gone into effect. I likely could have found more housing options if I chose to locate in Bend or Redmond, but I wanted to be fully immersed in my AmeriCorps experience in Sisters.

I applied for what felt like the last two apartments available in Sisters and was accepted for a 600-square-foot two-bedroom unit that cost $1,200 per month. I was hoping to get a one-bedroom unit that would have been more affordable for someone living by themselves — but regardless, I was grateful that I got a place in Sisters.

So, let’s take a moment to talk about what is typically considered “affordable” housing. The general rule of thumb is that a household should not allocate more than 30 percent of their monthly gross income to housing costs (i.e., rent, utilities, insurance, etc.). By that definition, a rental unit that costs $1,200 per month would be affordable for a household with a gross monthly income of $4,000 per month. In my case, with a $1,700 monthly living stipend, I was spending around 75 percent of my monthly income on just housing costs. What would have been an “affordable” housing unit had to be less than $510 per month – which may have only been possible by renting a room in a house with multiple roommates in Bend or Redmond.

I stayed in that apartment for two years, and in that time, it served my needs and allowed me to establish myself in Sisters. I was able to financially improve my situation after the AmeriCorps service year when I was hired into a full-time position with the City of Sisters, where I continue to work as a planner to this day. When the COVID pandemic subsided, I made local connections and found myself able to move into a house with multiple roommates in Bend, where I now technically have “affordable” housing. However, that came with the additional costs associated with commuting (i.e., gas, wear and tear on a vehicle, loss of personal time, environmental impacts, etc.).

I think many aspects of my story remain true to today’s context. The Central Oregon housing market is still relatively competitive, and there are limited affordable housing options for minimum wage and early-to-mid-career professionals. These individuals make up a significant amount of the local workforce.

Gaps in available and affordable workforce housing impact the local economy and community livability. The quality of restaurant services may decrease due to not being able to retain enough staff. Grocery stores may increase prices to provide more competitive wages. School districts may struggle to retain and recruit teachers that are essential to providing quality education. And frequent turnover of staff in government agencies may delay permitting and programs that help to bring more housing units to the market. Affordable housing is basic infrastructure – just like water, sewer, roads, and parks.

In Sisters, there are agencies, organizations, and local businesses working together to find solutions to support workforce housing needs. Currently, the City of Sisters is issuing grant funds for affordable and workforce housing projects and beginning the process of evaluating an urban growth boundary expansion which could include approximately 150 acres of new residential lands. You can learn more about local housing efforts at C4C’s May 5 Community Forum at Sisters Fire Hall’s community room from 4 to 5:30 p.m. or online at https://citizens4community.com/events/spring-forum-24.

 

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