When Bend developer Bill Smith moved to town in 1970, he and his wife didn’t have to worry about what home to rent. There was but a single rental in town, and they took it before they’d even looked at it.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It should. For as long as I can remember, and no doubt for years before that, Bend has swung from recession — and plenty of vacant rentals and homes for sale — to prosperity, which often has been marked by a shortage of both, at least for a time.
Today, not only is housing in general in relatively short supply, housing at the low end of the market is in very short supply. Nor is there a simple fix to either of those problems.
It is, Smith says, the norm in communities where people want to live. There are two simple, if unattractive solutions to the problem, though neither is realistic.
We could slow growth, and thus the demand for new housing, biologically: If we’d all quit having babies, the demand for new housing would slow some.
There’s another solution, though I don’t think anyone who has moved to Bend in at least the last 50 years would like it. The city could become a place where people no longer want to be. Eastern Oregon is dotted with those communities.
Wamic, where I lived for several years in the 1990s, is either not growing or growing so slowly nobody notices it. Antelope entered the 1980s with 39 residents; in 2013 it had 45. Wasco stayed flat during that period at 415, while Mitchell declined from 180 residents to 130.
The truth is, Smith says, no community where people want to be is ever able to satisfy the demand for housing. That’s true, he says, in Bend, in Saigon, in London — anywhere.
Recession can change that, at least temporarily. Consider Deschutes County’s unemployment rate. In May 2007, it bottomed out at 4.2 percent, according to figures from the Federal Reserve Bank in St. Louis. The recession began in earnest the following year, and by March 2009 the unemployment rate had reached 17.2 percent. This past May it was 4.2 percent for the first time in nine years.
In those lean years, housing prices fell and foreclosures increased. Growth slowed, and some families moved away. Landlords no doubt lost money on housing rentals, and both banks and homeowners lost money on the foreclosures. And almost nobody built houses, apartments or much of anything else. Thus, in the April-June quarter of 2008, during the depths of the recession, the region saw only 27 building permits issued. Compare that with more than 400 in the same quarter of 2005. That number, like the unemployment rate, and the population, has bounced back.
So, too, has the price of housing.
But, Smith notes, it won’t always seem so out of kilter. As new businesses come to the area, they’re likely to bring better wages with them, and with better wages comes the ability to afford a more expensive home.
Yet there are problems. We continue to be a region where pay is below the state average, and, I’m willing to bet, the number of residents working in the tourism service industry is relatively high. We run the risk of making Bend, and, to some extent, Redmond, too expensive for those who serve meals in restaurants, pump gas and work as cashiers to live nearby.
That’s troublesome, it seems to me. This was for much of my life a largely blue-collar community, populated by men and women who worked in mills and other timber-related businesses to feed families. I’d hate to see it become so expensive that the people who built so much of it are priced out of the community they helped create.
Yet unless something changes — the state’s land use laws disappear, or something equally dramatic — that’s a very real possibility. And that change is about as likely as winning a $100 million Powerball lottery.
The shift may be good for someone who owns buildable land in the subdivisions south of Bend, to be sure. But I don’t think it’s good for Bend, and I don’t see a way to change it. Things like rent control and inclusionary zoning may sound good, but so far no one has demonstrated they can actually make a substantial difference.
Janet Stevens is deputy editor of The Bulletin. Contact: 541-617-7821, firstname.lastname@example.org