Imagine a $1 million grant falls out of the sky and lands at the feet of Astoria’s next mayor.
At a debate among the three candidates for mayor Wednesday night, moderator Chris Breitmeyer, president of Clatsop Community College, asked: What would you do with the money?
City Councilor Bruce Jones, deputy director of the Columbia River Maritime Museum and a former Coast Guard commander, would use the money for affordable housing, expanding child care and working with the state to train and certify more home child care providers.
“When we don’t have adequate child care, mothers or fathers who wish to work, one of them has to stay home and can’t work and that means they might not be able to keep paying their mortgage or paying their rent,” he said.
Dulcye Taylor, owner of Old Town Framing Co. and president of the Astoria Downtown Historic District Association, would use the money to buy property on Irving Street — the long-vacant lot between Ninth and 10th streets — and build low-income housing. She would also want to find a way to use the grant to make more money.
“But I’d have to figure out how to do that first,” she said.
Michael “Sasha” Miller, a community activist, would devote the money to helping the homeless in numerous small ways, addressing a need for foster parents and retrofitting the city for natural disasters like earthquakes.
Questions about how to address homelessness, the housing crunch and economic development continue to dominate the mayoral race. Under Breitmeyer’s questioning at the debate — sponsored by the American Association of University Women, Coast Community Radio, Clatsop Community College and The Daily Astorian — the candidates delved into the specifics of what they plan to do if elected.
When asked to name three solutions on affordable housing, the candidates said getting a handle on Airbnb-type vacation rentals is key. The City Council took a first look at a new permit process to address illegal rentals at a work session Wednesday morning, Jones said.
Taylor floated the idea of taxing the owners of vacant houses.
“They are stealing from us, sort of, so why not tax them and get some revenue from those places?” she asked.
Miller, in an answer that elicited laughter from the audience, noted that Pioneer Cemetery — a grassy site off Niagara Avenue dotted with old grave markers — is sitting on basalt.
“So we have the dead people that are going to be safe from an earthquake while down below everybody’s going to die from the earthquake and the tsunami and I would love to move the dead down to the river … and build housing on that nice, safe basalt,” he said.
All three candidates pushed for zoning changes to allow higher-density housing. Jones and Miller said there is land available on the city’s eastern edge in the Tongue Point area and in the Emerald Heights apartment complexes, which remains a source of lower-income housing.
The City Council has discussed a construction excise tax to raise money to increase the city’s housing stock. Such a program could be key to funding affordable housing projects, Jones said.
The candidates diverged slightly when it came to homelessness and offered few concrete solutions.
Taylor and Jones believe the mayor has a role in encouraging housing projects and coordinating with social-service providers. Miller favors legalizing urban camping, an issue the other candidates did not mention. The City Council is in the process of amending an ordinance that prohibits camping to address homeless camps in the woods.
Asked to list the top challenges and opportunities for economic development, Taylor said Astoria Makers, a collective of artists, craftsmen and entrepreneurs downtown, could be “an incubator space for light industry jobs.”
She believes a proposed data center in Warrenton is also a good opportunity for Astoria. Taylor, a former illustrator at Microsoft, envisions a partnership between the data center and the college to develop a curriculum.
Jones highlighted decisions made by the City Council during his tenure, such as the expansion of the Clatsop Enterprise Zone to include Tongue Point, a move that could allow a marine fabrication and repair facility to take root.
Miller is cautious about economic development, especially as it gets more difficult for some people to afford to live in Astoria. If the city is moving toward a tourism-based economy, he would like to see more historic interpretation to showcase the city’s history.
Public meetings on the Urban Core, the final piece of the city’s Riverfront Vision Plan to guide development along the Columbia River, are in process. It is work that the new mayor will oversee next year.
Taylor said she would not vote to allow any additional building in the Urban Core, an area that stretches from Second Street to 16th Street.
None of the candidates supported building more hotels. Developers have proposed a 60-plus room hotel along the Columbia River — a plan the city’s Design Review Committee just denied for a second time — as well as a 90-plus room hotel along Youngs Bay on the South Slope.
Jones said he would look at rezoning waterfront areas on the South Slope from commercial to residential.
“I don’t think we need a 90-room hotel on the South Slope,” he said. “I think we need 90 apartments on the South Slope. That would help ease the housing crunch.”