Clatsop County is moving forward with a strategy to support new affordable housing projects.
The county and cities completed a housing study in 2019 that recommended the county address an affordable housing shortage by doing more to support diverse housing at higher densities and control vacation rentals.
Since then, the county and cities have grappled with how to balance the growth in vacation rentals as the North Coast becomes a more popular tourist destination, but little progress has been made. Meanwhile, homebuying has surged during the coronavirus pandemic as more people have flocked to the coast, further intensifying the issue.
“As staff has been discussing this topic, we’ve really been reflecting upon a role for the county that would be timely, that would be effective and then ultimately would be successful in facilitating new affordable housing stock in the county,” County Manager Don Bohn said during a work session of the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday.
“Here in Clatsop County, as you know, the county does not have any affordable housing staff, we don’t develop housing, we don’t maintain affordable housing. And if you look at the full range of 36 counties, counties do it differently. Sometimes housing authorities fall within counties and then they also have housing departments that do more discretionary public housing development with nonprofit and private partners,” he said.
“You have some where the housing authority is the only housing resource. And what we have here is we have a consortium of multiple counties through NOHA (Northwest Oregon Housing Authority) who is providing federal housing programs and also owning and maintaining a housing stock over those three counties.”
The county hired Angelo Planning Group, a Portland consulting company, in December to facilitate meetings with housing stakeholders, including cities and nonprofit housing developers.
Bohn said the purpose of the meetings was to identify a set of high-priority action items.
“So our question to stakeholders and partners was, ‘What can the county do to move the needle on housing?‘” he said. “And knowing that we have limited resources and, frankly, we have limited expertise in housing development.”
There were five suggestions, and fundamentally, Bohn said, there was a desire for the county to act as an advocate and a convener.
Bohn laid out the suggestions to county commissioners.
One of the most vital resources the county can bring to the table is land, Bohn said. He shared options that are available for potential affordable housing development in Astoria and Warrenton.
Beyond that, he said, the county will work with cities and review codes, zoning requirements and other regulations that impact affordable housing development.
“And then it’s to play this continual role as we move forward to have long-standing reciprocal relationships with these nonprofit housing providers so that we can have a steady stream of projects within the county,” Bohn said. “Because this isn’t a one-time challenge. This is an ongoing, sustainable challenge of building additional units overtime.
“We’re also fortunate that some of our nonprofit partners, like CBH (Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare), are also going to be getting into the housing business, which is great. And their focus is really on permanent supportive housing, which fits a very important niche. But it’s going to take all of us to do our small part to make a difference that the community needs.”
As far as who will facilitate the work on behalf of the county, Bohn said there are several different options, including funding a position at the Northwest Oregon Housing Authority that focuses specifically on housing development in Clatsop County. The housing authority provides critical housing assistance to low-income residents in Clatsop, Columbia and Tillamook counties.
“Whether that is ultimately an idea that has legs is not fully developed yet, but that’s one of the options,” Bohn said. “The other option is that we hire a county staff to facilitate these kinds of partnerships or a consultant. So there’s a number of options and we’re still working through that.”
County commissioners were supportive of the framework.
Commissioner Lianne Thompson said she would like the board to have a role in the process and serve on an advisory committee for the work.
Bohn said that while he does envision an advisory committee for ongoing collaboration, he wants to get the ball rolling.
“And again, we just need to put the shovel in the ground from my perspective and just start this process, because there is muscle memory that is important to these affordable housing projects,” he said. “And we just don’t have that muscle memory right now because we haven’t done it together. And so I think staff is just eager to get the process started.”
Commissioner Pamela Wev said she liked the idea of the county being an ambitious convener.
“I’ve been real disappointed after we did the housing study, which remember was half-funded — 50 grand from the county and 10 (grand) from each of the cities — and I have seen very little results coming from that, including from our standpoint,” she said.
Thompson was also happy to see movement.
“County manager, assistant county manager, thank you for this work,” she said. “It’s inspiring. It’s hopeful. We are getting in the game. As Commissioner Wev points out, we had a housing study. The board that existed then was unwilling to have a commission be involved with that. So it really kind of cut the legs off. Now you’re putting the wheels back on the bus. So we’re going to get on the road.
“Now where we go and how much horsepower we have — if I can continue the metaphor — we’ll see. But we’re in the game. We’re in the game long term. We’re in the game to build capacity locally, regionally, across the state. We’re well begun.”