Guest Column

Deschutes County is not the only mountain destination community in the western U.S. that struggles with the availability and affordability of housing for our workforce. I had the opportunity to learn about what some of our sibling communities are doing to maintain and expand workforce housing in February when I met with county commissioners and community leaders from Eagle and Pitkin Counties (Colorado), Mono and Nevada Counties (California), Summit County (Utah) and Teton County (Wyoming). These communities are pursuing ambitious and innovative strategies to ensure there is a place for working people to live in their busy tourist destination towns.

These “gateway” communities don’t have as large populations or as diversified economies as we have here in Deschutes County, but we share many conditions that make workforce housing a challenge. Our remarkable outdoor amenities inspire people from across the nation to seek to relocate here. Since many of those people bring jobs or assets from other places our local housing prices have become decoupled from local salaries and wages. Communities with large leisure and hospitality sectors need lots of lower wage service sector workers. A lot of our housing stock is second homes and short-term rentals. Becoming a “zoom town” during COVID compounded these issues. So the strategies other mountain destination communities are using to address workforce housing needs may be useful here.

We’re already doing some of the things that our sibling mountain communities are doing: facilitating the development of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), providing county and city property for affordable housing, and supporting housing preservation programs that keep older and more modest homes from being demolished to construct expensive new homes. The City of Bend is providing density bonuses for workforce and affordable housing, charging a construction excise fee to generate funds for affordable housing, providing fee exemptions (for infrastructure and other costs), providing property tax exemptions for certain projects, moving away from exclusive single family zoning, and streamlining permitting processes for priority projects.

Our sibling Western mountain communities are also doing some things that we aren’t: providing local workers with down payment and rental deposit assistance; offering low interest loans for ADU construction; paying landlords to maintain units as long term rentals; meaningfully restricting the number of short term rentals in their jurisdiction; and actively acquiring land for affordable and workforce housing projects. One community offers home sellers a cash payment in exchange for reducing the sale price and placing a deed restriction on the property so it becomes permanently affordable.

Almost all of these new strategies come with costs. So I was particularly interested to learn how these mountain destination communities raised the funds to pay for their programs. Some make substantial allocations out of their general fund (property tax revenue). Others have implemented local real estate transfer taxes, sales taxes, short term rental fees, or “vacant home” taxes or fees.

Dedicating millions of county or city general fund dollars or creating new taxes and fees in order to invest in workforce and affordable housing are drastic measures. But it’s a crisis when there aren’t enough workers to operate local businesses and community services and that worker shortage is due in large part to a lack of attainable housing. Some would argue that Oregon’s land use planning system is the reason for our housing challenges. But my six example counties in four other Western states don’t have land use planning systems like Oregon and have few growth management restrictions yet they have the same workforce housing affordability and availability issues we do. So land use reform is likely not a silver bullet. Let’s explore these innovative strategies from our fellow Western mountain destination communities.

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Phil Chang is a member of the Deschutes County Commission. This opinion is his own.

(1) comment

Gary Mendoza

Limiting short term rentals is a start.

If a new revenue source is needed, the County should go to Salem to get the authority to increase the hotel occupancy tax (I recommend it be at least tripled) and use the proceeds for the general fund.

Bend’s overreliance on tourism puts significant strains on its infrastructure and housing stock and undermines the quality of life for Bend residents. It’s past time for that to end.

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