Another Voice: Short-term rentals: the ‘Get-Away Boom’ saps livability

Hood River’s volcanic rise in housing costs is biting into our livability. A four-year-long surge in STRs (vacation rentals) is especially alarming.

Since 2015, our median home price has been the undisputed highest county in Oregon. Today it’s $525,500 — about $100,000 more than Portland, Ashland or Bend. Hood River’s average renter needs to work 61 hours a week for a typical one-bedroom apartment.

Jobs are here. But too many families and jobseekers have stopped trying to buy or rent a place to call home. We’re no longer a sleepy little valley.

“I feel like the horse is well out of the barn (for STRs in the city) and we can see where it’s going,” County Commissioner Les Perkins said in October 2016. “My view is we need to get ahead of this, we need to have effective controls in place.”

“I don’t want to see them on EFU (farmland) at all,” County Chair Ron Rivers said at the time.

Vacation rental websites are the game changer — a University of Oregon study found that, between 2014 and 2016, Airbnb listings here spiked 211 percent. When the planning department first looked at vacation bookings in early 2015, it called STRs “big business and a growing one at that.”

RewardExpert named Hood River as “that perfect place for your seasonal get-away,” with its “many awards from national magazines.”

Last year, 6 percent of Hood River’s rural homebuyers were STR operators. With the city’s limit on absentee-owner STRs, that’s trending upward. Lucrative STRs and inflated home prices are joined at the hip.

We don’t want STRs to be banned. We support rural homeowners who decide to rent out extra rooms or want income when they vacation. But not multi-partner LLCs and realty professionals who can easily find a great return-on-investment elsewhere.

We’re urging our county commissioners to require genuine residency for STRs as recommended by their citizen planning commission. It requires the STR to be the ‘domicile’ of the homeowner.

Oddly, it looks like the county has lost its appetite to tackle STRs at all. Its proposed code for STRs asks only that the owner live in a dwelling for at least 30 days per year, which has us scratching our heads. What’s the point of a one-twelfth of the year residency rule?

The county also wants to cap STRs at 100, but they’re too late. The rural count has already shot past 140 known STRs. Only one out of 10 STR operators have a permit and the county has one part-time planner to deal with all zoning scofflaws.

The city picked a different approach to STRs that is fully self-funded — zero taxpayer money.

Because its residency test is easy to verify, nine out of 10 STR owners observe the law. Current out-of-town STR operators have a seven-year grace period to do so. Already, former STRs owners are converting their houses to ordinary rentals.

The city uses STR software that simplifies applications, health inspections, complaints, tax collection and enforcement — another chance for the county to piggyback on the city’s success.

The county will hold a public hearing on Aug. 20 to vote on revised STR rules. Commissioners shouldn’t ignore the city’s success with its STR residency test and the county planning commission’s support for “domiciled” owners. It shouldn’t reject overwhelming public testimony at every STR hearing urging genuine residency.

Outside the city, STRs are a warning sign of the larger clash between our farm community and the power of destination marketing.

Like countless other spectacular places, Hood River is being loved to death by sightseers and speculators.

Ironically, STRs also hurt the tourism industry because service and tourism jobs are low-paid and workers are forced to commute long distances. Local businesses face pressure to raise wages when jobseekers can’t find shelter within reach.

Lastly, every time a home switches from long-term to overnight use, we lose the year-round spending of that household — an estimated net loss to the local economy of more than $22,000 per home. Since more than half of STR owners live outside Hood River, it’s a double loss to the community because their earnings don’t stay here.

Hood River is facing an STR influx ahead of other Gorge communities, so what we do is being watched closely. Controlling nonresident STRs won’t solve Hood River’s affordability crunch by itself, but it’s a healthy start toward lowering housing costs. It’s what we need at this time to keep our county’s diverse economy — and our livability.

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John Mills is vice-president of the Hood River Valley Residents Committee, a local nonprofit advocating community planning since 1977 to protect and enhance Hood River’s strengths for the generations ahead.



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