It’s been almost a year since the Sea Lark Apartments burned down, and the owner, Mike Clark of Coaster Properties, is looking to rebuild.
The fourplex on North Larch Street was one of the city’s few affordable housing options. Clark hopes to maintain the affordable rent while expanding the complex to eight units.
But there are some hurdles. Increasing density would be easier with three stories, which is hard to execute with the city’s 28-foot building height restriction. Clark would also need a parking variance, since there is not enough room on the property for the parking the city requires for eight units.
It’s details like this that made Clark decide to not only request a variance to rebuild the Sea Lark, but to propose a variety of zoning or ordinance changes he believes would make it easier for private developers to build workforce housing, said Rainmar Bartl, a former city planner who represents Clark. “He’s been frustrated trying to get something started,” Bartl said. “So he’s decided to address the bigger picture.”
Bartl and Clark proposed the changes to parking and landscaping requirements, height restrictions and zoning at a Planning Commission work session last week. Some commissioners expressed reservations about how the changes would affect “the character of Cannon Beach,” but ultimately decided to hold a public hearing in late January.
City councilors named creating more affordable housing the No. 1 priority last year.
A housing study commissioned by the city found that second homes make up 60 percent of housing. Of the 722 homes occupied by full-time residents, only 45 percent were rentals. According to the study, the city’s housing problem is a lack of affordable housing for the “missing middle.”
“These are nurses, police, firefighters, city staff and other community professionals; they may be relatively highly paid and make too much money to income qualify for publicly subsidized housing but too little money to afford market rate rental units,” the report states.
This trend, paired with very little developable land, makes affordable housing a challenge. Bartl suggests reducing the city’s parking requirements as a way to entice more developers to build.
“This is not a unique problem. Parking takes up a lot of land, and it drives up cost for the developer. The requirements are excessive, and if you are using that land for parking, that’s land you aren’t using for housing,” Bartl said.
The issue of parking requirements hindering affordable housing has been a topic of discussion in cities across the country, including Portland and Eugene. A study by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in British Columbia found that one parking space per affordable housing unit increases costs by approximately 12.5 percent, which eventually translates into higher rent. It also found the demand for parking in affordable housing complexes surveyed was 50 percent of what most cities required.
While the study mostly considered urban areas, Bartl argues these impacts are similar in Cannon Beach. Bartl surveyed how many parking spots were occupied at Shorewood Apartments and Elk Creek Terrace — the two subsidized housing complexes in town – and found on average 80 percent of all of the parking was occupied by residents.
Bartl is also asking the city to raise building height requirements from 28 feet to 32 feet in the R3 zone — the zone that permits multifamily housing. Because hotels are already permitted to be built to 32 feet, he argues most people would not notice a visual difference.
His last proposal would allow developers to build multifamily housing on land zoned for commercial. Currently, only 50 percent of property in commercial zoning can be allocated for housing.
In the interest of transparency, Bartl said changing the zoning requirements is in the best interest of Clark, who is seeking to develop workforce housing on land he owns that is zoned commercial. But Bartl argues the positive impacts of these changes extend beyond Clark’s project.
“Coaster has lots of employees, and always has a hard time finding housing for them. Having half developed as housing is good, but think if you can make the whole site more housing,” Bartl said. “At some point you have to decide what your priorities are, and the city has signaled affordable housing is a priority. If you’re going to rely on the private sector to solve this, it financially has to work out for them.”
A lukewarm reception
City Planner Mark Barnes said he has talked with many people who have expressed similar frustrations as Bartl and Clark when it comes to attempting to develop affordable properties in Cannon Beach, but said this is the first time someone has gotten as far as to request code changes in a public way.
“There’s only so much a city can do as a regulatory body for affordable housing,” Barnes said. “A lot is directed at private developers. So we do want to look at our code to see if we have any roadblocks that make it harder for them to create affordable housing.”
During Bartl’s testimony, many planning commissioners had reservations about the changes, and questioned the city’s role in creating workforce housing. Some wanted to wait to see more progress with the city’s plan to establish affordable tiny homes in the town’s RV park before approving major code changes.
“Why is it that this is our problem rather than the employer’s problem?” Planning Commission Chairman Bob Lundy said. He suggested employers should offer subsidies and salary supplements so workers could live in town.
Barnes responded that it is important to make sure current ordinances aren’t acting as obstruction for employers who do want to provide housing.
Commissioner Joe Bernt questioned the validity of the parking survey Bartl conducted at the low-income housing complexes. Without robust public transit, some commissioners argued cars are a necessity in places like Clatsop County.
“I’m not sure if how many cars you see at 8 p.m. for three nights is a good way of determining parking standards,” he said.
Bernt also objected to raising rooflines to 32 feet in a residential zone, and said he thought there were ways to build three-story buildings without doing so.
“I think we are better off facilitating exceptions and variances,” Bernt said. “There’s not much land left in Cannon Beach, and there are houses that could be built following our current rules. This R3 zone will be increasingly valuable and attractive to people who want to move here and retire.”
For now, city staff will create a draft ordinance reflecting Bartl and Clark’s suggestions, which will be evaluated by commissioners and the community at January’s public hearing.
“People will always find reasons to oppose affordable housing,” Bartl said. “(The Sea Lark Apartments) is a test case. Do you want to add to affordable housing or not? It’s the difference between rhetoric and reality.”