Letter: Do we really have a housing problem?

Tillamook County Commissioner David Yamamoto

The answer is YES! Before I go any further with my comments, I need to make three very important points about the construction excise tax (CET) proposed by the commissioners.
First, the vast majority of Tillamook County residents will NOT pay this tax unless you plan on remodeling or building a home or commercial building valued at more than $250,000 in the next 10 years. This tax is aimed at those coming to our county to build a second home or vacation rental. Second, all monies collected through this tax are mandated to go toward the development of housing – this money can’t be used by the general fund in any other way. Third, you can be part of the solution simply by voting ‘yes’ on Referendum 29-152.
Now, back to my original question: the answer is still a resounding yes. The biggest economic development issue facing our county is a lack of workforce housing. A poignant example is the story of one of our school districts hiring several new teachers at the beginning of the school year, only to have two of them resign the week before school started because they could not find a place to live. Other examples come from Tillamook County Creamery Association, Adventist Health, dairy farmers, timber industry, our veterans, the county, and the list goes on and on.
Lack of workforce housing across all demographics is truly a statewide issue, but is even worse in our coastal counties where we have two distinct housing markets. We have a flourishing beach market where vacationers build their dream homes as second homes or vacation rentals, and we have a more constrained interior market where high demand keeps vacancy low and prices stable, but not robust enough to stimulate healthy levels of reinvestment for development of new housing products.
As we transition to a more tourism-based economy, we have a $15/hour workforce with a $25/hour housing market. It is not that we aren’t building new homes in Tillamook County – we are. Over the past 10 years, we have added 2,400 housing units while simultaneously losing 2,700 units to vacation rentals and second homes. This is a net loss of 300 housing units for local residents.
People have approached me and said, “Just let the private sector solve this inequity.” Over the last several decades, the problem has only gotten worse. I certainly do not blame local builders and developers. If I had a choice of building a $500,000 beach home and making a nice profit or building a $200,000 home with little or no profit, I certainly would build the McMansion.
In 2006, the City of Bend was the first in Oregon to implement a CET for the express purpose of addressing their workforce housing issue. The City of Bend has been able to leverage its CET 7 – 10 times using Federal, State, private and public foundation grants. Following Bend’s decision, the State stepped in banning any other CETs. It wasn’t until 2016 that the State, after reviewing the successes from Bend, reversed their decision to allow cities and counties in Oregon to follow Bend’s lead. Through a series of grants, Tillamook County commissioned a study (www.careinc.org/housing-task-force), which clearly points out the problems we face and identifies solutions.
How does the county plan on implementing strategies to unstick our current housing market? To me, this is all about allowing local builders and developers to make their bottom line pencil out, just like the more expensive beach homes. If they currently saw a positive bottom line, they would be building workforce housing. There is no reason to reinvent the wheel when Bend has already been so successful. The City of Bend is ranked No. 2 in Oregon for affordable housing, yet people continually tell me there is no affordable housing in Bend. This to me is the key – make workforce housing look just like any other house and neighborhood in the county. This is where Bend has been so successful.
Some people tell me we can do this without a CET. Since last year when the State passed legislation allowing counties to collect a CET, Tillamook County is the first to implement a CET. Previously, everyone knew we had a problem, but assistance was not forthcoming. State agencies overlooked Tillamook County as we appeared unwilling to help ourselves.
Now, we have offers of assistance from many sectors, including the Dept. of Land Conservation Development, Regional Solutions, private and public foundations and many others, all of whom will be instrumental in helping us get our housing market unstuck. Being the first in the State to take up the challenge, they know they need to make this a success, and this strengthens our cause.
If we let this opportunity pass us by, all of the attention and offers of assistance will be focused elsewhere – where people are willing to step up and help themselves. We can make Tillamook County a better place for all to live and work – but we must be able to take the first step to help ourselves. I urge you to vote YES on Referendum 29-152.