Seeking solutions to housing challenges

 

Last updated 5/7/2024 at 9:03am

Photo by Jim Cornelius

A panel of developers and government officials assembled by Citizens4Community (C4C) led a discussion of the complex challenges facing Sisters in providing housing for a wide range of people.

Housing is a real challenge for many folks in Sisters. There's not a lot available, especially for rent, and prices are very high for people who work for Central Oregon wages. Housing challenges are not unique to Sisters - it's a problem across the nation and particularly in the desirable towns of the American West.

Sisters is seeking ways to address a challenge that for many rises to a crisis - and a full-house gathering at Sisters Fire District's Community Hall dug into the problem at a Sunday afternoon forum co-sponsored by Citizens4Community (C4C) and The Nugget Newspaper.

The audience was well aware of the gap between local incomes and the $700,000-plus median price of a home in Sisters. Other statistics drew a startled response - particularly Sisters City Councilor Jennifer Letz's note that Sisters has a 20 percent vacancy rate (most cities have a five to seven percent vacancy rate). In a later Q&A session, someone asked if the City of Sisters is considering a vacancy tax to discourage homeowners from letting so much housing stock sit empty most of the year.

"That is one of our (council) goals, to research that," Letz said.

A vacancy fee could be assessed, with proceeds going into a fund to help develop affordable housing.

Short-term rentals are often pointed to as a drag on the long-term rental market - but it appears that STRs are not a straightforward "villain" in the housing story. Letz and City of Sisters Associate Planner Emme Shoup talked about the result of a survey of owners of short-term rentals in Sisters. They note that few of the owners said they would be interested in making their homes available for long-term rental (although they would be more interested if there were incentives). Additionally, a sizable number are renting rooms or accessory dwelling units in order to gain income to support their own ability to afford to live here.

It's clear that there are no "silver bullet" solutions to the housing crisis, especially for "middle housing" accessible to people who make too much money to qualify for assistance programs, yet fall way short of the income needed to afford market-rate housing in Sisters.

Clayton Crowhurst of Northwest Housing Alternatives articulated why housing affordability matters: A range of housing options is vital to cultivating and maintaining a community of diverse people from a variety of walks of life.

"I think we can all agree that a good community is a diverse community," he said.

Deschutes County Commissioner Phil Chang noted that Sisters, like many towns in the West, is an attractive place to be, and it draws well-heeled people who aren't dependent on a local paycheck.

"There are people who want to come here that have more to work with than local salaries and wages," he said.

This "decouples" housing prices from local affordability, he said.

Deschutes County directed $500,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds to Sisters, which is being used to help facilitate a multi-family affordable housing project under the auspices of Northwest Housing Solutions.

Construction costs have become a significant factor in affordability in recent years - and they affect non-profits and for-profit developers alike. Crowhurst noted that his outfit pays the same amount for a sheet of plywood as does Kevin Eckert of Sisters Woodlands. Spikes in materials costs have driven up the per-square-foot cost of construction across the board.

Panelists agreed that the major barriers to progress are land availability, access to funding, and slow government processes (though all agreed that City of Sisters personnel are responsive and efficient).

Shoup acknowledged that government process can be cumbersome.

"It takes time and it does slow down developers," she said.

That is in part because Oregon Land Use Laws require a robust public involvement process for actions like expanding the City's Urban Growth Boundary. The City is currently launching into that process, but it will be several years before any new land is brought in annexed and developed. As part of that process, the City has some leverage to require affordability in proposed housing developments.

Similarly, a Northwest Housing Alternatives multi-family housing project is several years from being realized. Sisters Habitat for Humanity is planning on bringing 30-plus homes online in the next three to three-and-half years, but Executive Director Peter Hoover has noted many times that finding land is harder than getting houses built.

Letz noted that many owners of tracts of land in Sisters don't live here and it is hard to get conversations going about developing more housing.

The forum pointed toward actions the community can take to alleviate the problem - but none of them are immediate. C4C Executive Director Kellen Klein acknowledged this in a post-forum interview with The Nugget.

"There's not a lot of immediate relief for those people at risk of having to vacate this community immediately," he said.

Klein would like to see the community establish some sort of "match-making" mechanism to link up people who have housing needs with opportunities that they may not be aware of in the community. He noted that Julie Kehler, a local resident recently profiled in The Nugget, was able to find a housing situation after that story ran and someone reached out to her.

The housing situation affects employers, and Klein said he foresees "more employers seeking to subsidize their employees' housing."

Klein said he was gratified by the turnout and said, "I really appreciate the community's willingness to go that deep on these issues."

The key to keeping momentum on the issue is for people to find ways to engage and get involved in seeking solutions. C4C has produced a digital guide to housing facts, resources, and reading that can be accessed at bit.ly/C4C-housing-resources. A recording to the forum is expected to be up on the C4C website by Wednesday, May 8; https://citizens4community.com.

Author Bio

Jim Cornelius, Editor in Chief

Author photo

Jim Cornelius is editor in chief of The Nugget and author of “Warriors of the Wildlands: True Tales of the Frontier Partisans.” A history buff, he explores frontier history across three centuries and several continents on his podcast, The Frontier Partisans. For more information visit www.frontierpartisans.com.

 

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