Though Astoria has plenty of places for people to live, the city’s housing stock is not fully serving residents, a countywide housing study concluded.
The city remains short of affordable and workforce housing, as well as land that’s open and available to build new houses and apartments.
At a City Council work session Thursday, consultants recommended a number of strategies, such as code and zoning changes the city could implement to encourage diverse types of development. There are also incentives Astoria could consider to coax developers into building the kind of housing city leaders want to see.
The city is already in the process of reviewing codes dealing with accessory dwelling units — separate structures on the same lots as single-family homes that can be rented out. The city is also curbing illegal vacation rentals. Other refinements are in the works.
But there is more that could be done, city councilors believe. And they believe they may have to make some difficult decisions down the road, especially in neighborhoods that have resisted apartment or townhouse projects.
During his campaign for mayor last year, Bruce Jones talked about the need to create more flexibility in city codes and find areas for higher-density housing.
Following Thursday’s meeting, the mayor reaffirmed his desire to “consider what incentives the city can offer to encourage development of these areas for housing and particularly affordable housing.”
“There is no silver bullet,” Jones added. “We need to look at a whole package of options to increase the number of residential units and minimize the use of these as second homes for nonpermanent residents.”
On Thursday, consultants displayed a map of the vacant and partially vacant acres available in Astoria. These sections were lit up in pale yellow and electric green, while developed areas were colored gray. Nonresidential zones were a dusty pink.
On the map, most of the heel-shaped jut of land that forms Astoria is either pink or gray. The green sections of partially vacant land stand out. There are small pockets in the dominantly gray downtown, and larger parcels to the east.
Astoria’s population has only just begun to creep up, but for years has held relatively steady at just below 10,000 people. The estimated population in 2018 was 9,695, according to Portland State University’s Population Research Center.
The city is split almost in half between homeowners and renters. Across Oregon, around 39% of the population rents and 61% owns.
But Astoria also faces a higher estimated poverty rate. Clatsop County has the highest rate of homelessness per 1,000 residents than any other county in the state, according to the study.
With many county, mental health and social services clustered in Astoria, the city has had to grapple with how to address an increasingly visible homeless population that draws on these services. Combined with a lack of affordable housing and workforce housing, and rents that continue to rise, these issues have forced policy discussions in recent years.
The average cost of rentals is high in Astoria.
Of the five cities in Clatsop County, Astoria looks much more like Cannon Beach when it comes to what people pay in rent. A one-bedroom unit, on average, costs $925 a month in Astoria, and $900 in Cannon Beach. Two bedrooms can kick the cost up to an average of $1,250, while a three-bedroom unit is an average of $1,600.
“Property managers and the U.S. Census do not indicate that rental rates have grown particularly quickly, averaging roughly 3% annually in recent years,” the study noted. “However, the greater issue is availability, as renters and employers find it difficult to find vacant units to rent.”
Entire Facebook pages have sprung up dedicated to people looking for a place to live in Clatsop County and in Astoria in particular. Property owners who advertise a cheaper-than-usual rental are often quickly flooded with inquiries.
The study identified a need for more single-family detached styles of housing for home ownership and more multifamily units for renters in Astoria.
On Thursday, city councilors expressed interest in encouraging higher-density development through strategies like cottage clusters — groups of smaller detached homes — and zoning.
“There’s so much in the study to digest,” City Councilor Joan Herman said afterward.
The City Council plans to hold another work session to discuss the study’s recommendations in more detail. Herman would like to go a step further and meet with elected officials countywide to see what could be accomplished collaboratively.
“Our workers, our residents, they don’t know boundaries necessarily so it just makes sense that we don’t work independently of each other,” she said.
The study provided quantifiable data that supports what people have already been advocating, City Councilor Jessamyn West said afterward.
“And that is the need for more affordable housing, specifically for individuals who make less than $25K a year,” she said.
But the question remains: “How do you incentivize people to build workforce housing?” One answer: subsidize it.
City Councilor Roger Rocka was interested in the idea of a land trust that could purchase land and then lease it to developers. The move could help reduce a builder’s costs and provide the city some guarantee that at least a percentage of the housing would be rented at affordable or workforce-level prices.
Utilizing land the city already owns and leveraging city loans are other options.
The options could provide ways to solve difficult vacant land conundrums, like Heritage Square’s open pit next to City Hall downtown.
“I think that’s potentially a great way for the city to use properties,” City Councilor Tom Brownson agreed.
But it is hard to pick out any single thing from the housing study at this point, Rocka said.
“There are good ideas and some good guidance and a lot more work to do,” he said.