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Officials take on housing challenge

October 19, 2005

Monday’s message that Hood River County doesn’t have enough affordable housing or industrial lands was hardly new.

But the united effort by three local government agencies to overcome these challenges, if possible, is a new step forward.

“It’s going to look pretty bleak and it is. But there are solutions out there and we can get through this. It’s going to take work, it’s going to take creativity and it’s going to take imagination,” said Hood River County Commission Chair Rodger Schock.

He was joined by 25 other officials and citizen activists for presentations by Mike Benedict, county planning director, and Bill Fashing, the county’s economic development coordinator.

Also in attendance were commissioners from the Port of Hood River and members of the Hood River City Council. In addition, the audience at the Charburger Restaurant on Oct. 17 included representatives from low income housing and economic development organizations, as well as citizen activists.

Benedict delivered several grim statistics during his 20 minute presentation on housing. He was followed by Fashing’s unveiling of an industrial lands survey that appeared equally dismal.

According to Benedict, many homeowners in the county are spending more than the recommended 35 percent of their income on a mortgage payment. He said Marketek, Inc., which recently engaged in a special study on the issue, said that number is higher than the statewide average. The Portland-based firm calculated that the median income for a family of four living in the county is $50,600.

The average price of a house within the city is $229,921 and $190,486 in outlying areas.

Even with a Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loan — which allows people to borrow up to 41 of their monthly gross income minus recurring debt payments — Benedict said home buyers are stretching to make payments. He said with zero debts the mortgage payment for a $280,000 house would be $1,700 per month on a 30-year loan at 6 percent interest.

And citizens, said Benedict, could easily fall short of qualifying for a loan with any significant debt. He said 60 percent of county and 50 percent of city residents earn less than $50,000.

But it is now almost impossible to find land of any size with a sale price below $100,000 — which greatly increases the cost of construction. He said a local realtor’s Web site only had two houses listed for under $200,000 in Hood River County last week, and one was in Cascade Locks. In addition, Benedict said only 12 homes were listed on that site for under $300,000.

“I think we all instinctively knew that we have a serious shortage of affordable housing and this study underscores that need,” said Benedict.

He said in the outlying areas, such as Odell, there is no zoning that directly accommodates multi-family dwellings – which creates a housing problem for those who cannot afford to buy.

Benedict said the county could possibly address that challenge in its long-term planning for unincorporated communities.

He said it was important to create affordable housing opportunities without segregating lower-income people in “undesireable” areas.

And to spread growth out so that it does not overburden the resources of a few schools.

“To me, the primary issue for this meeting would be a start on the discussion of what role each of the governing bodies should play,” said Benedict.

Officials believe the need for affordable housing is validated by long waiting lists for lower-income units built by Mid-Columbia Habitat for Humanity and Housing for People (HOPE). But they also contend that it is the middle-income buyers who might be “falling through the cracks” on the income test. Many residents who are overqualified for government aid do not make enough to finance a home on their own, according to Benedict.

Fashing’s report followed the same line of thought. While the county had 912 acres of land zoned for industrial use – less than two acres was free from any development constraints.

For example, he said the port had 27 acres along the waterfront but there was a great “political risk” to any business wanting to settle there. And the more risk an industry felt it might encounter, the less likely it was to consider that site.

In outlying areas, Fashing said the sewer and water services necessary to run a manufacturing plant were not available.

And the average size of the available parcels was only a little over two acres, which would not accommodate a development such as Cardinal IG in Odell or Homeshield, which will soon relocate to larger facilities in The Dalles.

In fact, Fashing said at least eight county businesses had cited lack of space for growth as their reason for moving out of the area. He said the city of Hood River was clearly the preferred site in most business inquiries — but there was less than two acres of industrial property within the municipal borders.

“As I hear it, the premium location is the City of Hood River and it’s got the least amount of industrial land available in the county,” said Fashing.

And without a transportation route that allowed firms with heavy truck traffic to bypass crowded city streets, he said mid-sized or larger companies could not be attracted to Hood River.

He said the county needed 296 acres of viable industrial lands to maintain a 20-year supply, as required by law.

Without manufacturing and commercial growth, it would get harder to pay the bills for essential services. Fashing cited statistics from the American Farmland Trust that for every dollar paid in taxes by an industry, only 27 cents were needed to offset service provisions.

Conversely, each residential unit required $1.17 in services for every dollar collected in taxes.

“We can’t continue to grow the residential element without growing the industrial and commercial elements to keep up with the funding of essential services,” Fashing said.

The issues of affordable housing and availability of industrial lands are closely tied together, he said. Without a supply of houses that workers can afford, a manufacturer is unlikely to be drawn into the county.

“Every site in the county is fairly risky and what we need to do is work to mitigate these risks,” Fashing said.

Dave Meriwether, county administrator, gained consensus from the group to further study the issue over a seven-month time period.

The involved officials and citizens agreed that two nine-member taskforces needed to research each issue separately.

Within the next few weeks, the county will set up the framework for those working groups, which will include one official from each agency and move forward to overcome the identified challenges.

“As a county and as a city we’re at the end of our 20-year supply of industrial lands and we need to get going,” Fashing said.

County officials will also present similar information to the city and port of Cascade Locks on Thursday, Oct. 27. That forum will take place at 6:30 p.m. in the Pavilion at Port Marine Park off WaNaPa Street.

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