Everyone deserves a safe place to call home. Everyone deserves to have the peace of mind that comes with having a roof over their head. Our challenge in the Columbia River Gorge is that the current housing stock is both limited and expensive, and affordable housing options are very limited. That means that safety and peace of mind are not available to all.
Over the last decade, we’ve seen home prices and rents soar. Our neighbors who perform the work that make this such a great place to live cannot themselves afford to live here. The people who work in our restaurants and breweries, who harvest and package our food, who clean our homes and offices, who harvest and process our timber, who share our amazing outdoor experiences, who teach and care for our children, who provide our services, all deserve to live here too.
What is affordable housing? An affordable dwelling is one that can be obtained for 30 percent or less of household income. Households are considered rent burdened when they pay more than 30 percent of their income towards rent or mortgage. In the 2015 study “Housing Underproduction in the U.S.,” 30-40 percent of households were considered rent burdened throughout the Gorge, and the conditions have not improved.
Why is it so difficult here to find affordable housing? It is an uphill battle as demand for all housing is high, prices continue to rise and inventory is extremely limited, especially for those in lower income brackets. Add to these restrictions on expanding urban growth boundaries, which are in place to protect the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. We love the area we live in, but it comes with some serious challenges.
Kenny LaPoint, who took over as the executive director for Mid Columbia Community Action Council (MCCAC) in November 2020, shared his experiences of working and living in Central Oregon beginning in 2004 and seeing the Bend area first go through a homeownership and foreclosure crisis around 2007-2008, and then see its popularity resurge to the point that it developed a housing crisis by 2011.
When the housing stock cannot accommodate the needs of the population, more units need to be made available. When constraints exist for where to build, the only option is to make the buildable areas more dense. However, people often develop “nimbyism,” the opposition to locating something undesirable in their neighborhood. So, where condos and apartments may be useful elements of the solution for an affordable housing crisis, they are often maligned as elements that would lessen the perceived livability of an area, creating the “not in my backyard” mentality.
How do we change the narrative? LaPoint noted that in Bend, the concept of increasing density took time to develop and that the plans for increasing density had to be carefully integrated with greenspace management and a new idea of community, one that was inclusive of all residents within the more dense spaces. He recognizes that Bend had more options available for increasing its urban boundaries, but found it to be a useful comparison on the discussion of the attitudes toward density and planning.
“This region seems to be more unique because of land use limitations,” LaPoint said. With a lower likelihood of adjusting urban boundaries, use of higher density within urban boundaries then becomes an even more important topic of discussion.
What needs to happen to solve the housing crisis? Joel Madsen, executive director of Mid-Columbia Housing Authority (MCHA) and Columbia Cascade Housing Corporation (CCHC), offers his thoughts: “ In order to solve the affordable housing crisis before us we need to take a multipronged and sustainable approach. This includes: 1. Preserve and build affordable homes. 2. Provide rent assistance. 3. Keep families in their homes instead of facing evictions and homelessness. 4. Protect renters.”
Community Action Agencies such as Washington Gorge Action Programs (WAGAP) in Skamania and Klickitat counties in Washington, and MCCAC in Hood River, Wasco and Sherman counties in Oregon, work tirelessly to fight conditions of poverty and homelessness. MCHA/CCHC has a bi-state mission in all five counties in the WAGAP and MCCAC service areas, and together these organizations work to assist local residents find and retain housing options.
We are all in this together. We strongly encourage you to support our lower income population and to encourage thoughtful, comprehensive development projects within our region’s urban boundaries, which can help make affordable housing a reality. It will require sacrifices, but affordable housing is something that must be supported. It is not merely a byproduct of more housing being constructed, but is something that must be carefully cultivated with our housing-insecure neighbors in mind. For our bi-state region to thrive, we must work together to make sure that it is a great place for everyone to live, work, and play.