Clatsop County is trying to figure out a familiar problem: As the North Coast rides a boom of development and tourism, where will everyone live?
On Wednesday night, the county’s Board of Commissioners approved a comprehensive study of local housing needs in partnership with Astoria, Warrenton, Gearhart, Seaside and Cannon Beach.
“What does (housing crisis) mean? How do you define that?” asked County Manager Cameron Moore at an Astoria City Council meeting earlier this month. “Do we understand where we are short on housing and where we have abundance? I don’t think we do.”
The idea came from Tillamook County, which completed its own comprehensive housing study in March. Consultants found that Tillamook had to account for two distinct housing markets, a low-wage economy that limited what housing residents could rent or buy, scarce land supply, tired-looking housing stock and other issues. They also provided 10 recommendations for how Tillamook could begin to address its housing woes.
Moore hopes to achieve something similar in Clatsop County.
“I haven’t been to a meeting where housing doesn’t come up,” he said.
The county commission voted 3-0 in favor of the study. But Commissioners Kathleen Sullivan and Lianne Thompson abstained from voting because they said they did not feel strongly enough against the study to vote “no.” Sullivan wanted to table the discussion, saying private corporations like the Walmart moving into Warrenton should contribute.
The agreement asks the cities to contribute $10,000 each for the housing study. The county will pitch in $50,000 and expects total costs to come to around $100,000. Tillamook County started out with a budget of $100,000 for its study and ended up spending roughly $60,000, Moore said. The leftover money was put toward implementing the first recommendation: To create and fund a countywide housing coordinator position.
A request for proposals for a consultant could go out by the end of October, with the goal of having someone on board by the end of the year or early next year. The county also plans to form a steering committee with representatives from the cities.
“I don’t know where we’ll end up dollar-wise on this, but I’m pretty confident the $100,000 is more than enough to get this done,” Moore said.
Moore acknowledged that most housing development will take place within city limits, not necessarily on county land, but he said it seems appropriate for the county government to spearhead this effort.
“Is the county part of the solution? Yeah, we are part of the solution.”
For many city officials, the first question they asked when presented with the county’s proposal was along the lines of: “I understand where you’re coming from, but why?”
Many of Clatsop County’s cities already have a sense of where they fall on the housing spectrum; they may have even completed extensive housing studies on their own. Many have or are considering implementing construction excise taxes to help fuel new housing development. Astoria recently completed a registry to track vacant houses and identify where housing could be reopened or created.
At an Astoria City Council meeting earlier this month, City Councilor Zetty Nemlowill wanted to know what Moore envisioned as the end product. “The result,” she said. “Other than just another study that sits at City Hall.”
Every city has one of those, said city officials across the county as they discussed the county’s proposal. They have the study that, as Warrenton Mayor Henry Balensifer said, “sits on the shelf and nothing really comes of it.” Or, said Warrenton City Commissioner Tom Dyer, the studies that follow other studies and are “the same thing called something different.”
In many ways Astoria and Warrenton are at completely opposite ends of the housing issue.
Kevin Cronin, Astoria’s community development director, and Astoria Mayor Arline LaMear say their city will likely look at existing buildings, houses that need some rehabilitation — or “adaptive reuse” — to make them available for renters or buyers, rather than new construction.
“I hope that we can get more new construction projects like what (developer) Joe Barnes is doing over above the (Astoria Recreation Center),” Cronin said, pointing to a 32-unit apartment complex in the works on Astoria’s South Slope. “But for the most part we’re a built-out community.”
In Warrenton, some 500 housing units are in process this year alone — either under construction or still in the permit and design review stages — and there is still more land available.
But Warrenton and Astoria both decided to participate in the countywide study. City officials said no city has taken the county’s full housing market and related issues into account. That lack of a bird’s-eye view was what convinced many of the cities to sign on.
Even though Cannon Beach completed its own housing study last year, the City Council unanimously agreed to participate in the county study.
“All cities are in the same boat right now when it comes to affordable housing,” said Jason Schermerhorn, the interim city manager for Cannon Beach. “It’s not just a problem in this county, it’s statewide. Being involved will help us have a broader idea on how to handle it.”
“I look at the housing issue as not just a city of Astoria issue,” Astoria City Manager Brett Estes said. “It’s really a county issue and what can we all collectively be doing.”
After all, he said, there’s “leakage” between the different cities, meaning people who work in one city might be trying to live in another, or might be forced to live outside the city they work in because of the lack of housing. Balensifer also made a similar point as the Warrenton City Commission discussed the agreement.
“For me it’s, ‘OK, we can look at Astoria but, really, what’s the need for the whole area?’” Estes said. “And what’s the availability for the whole area?”
Reporters Brenna Visser and Jack Heffernan contributed to this report.