Hood River Council adds Nov. 16 meeting to continue short-term rental debate

JULIE Gilbert tells Council, “You need to come up with a longer term solution” than STR rules.

City Council wrangled over proposed restrictions on short-term rentals Monday in a four-hour meeting that left nothing decided except to meet again in a week.

Council will hold a special meeting Nov. 16 at 6 p.m. to continue debating how best to proceed with the sticky issue of monitoring and restricting short-term rentals (STRs) in residential areas in the city, a popular practice that is technically not allowed within city code. Councilors heard plenty from the community but also found considerable disagreement within their own ranks on what to do about STRs.

Council will continue the discussion Monday at 6 p.m. at City Hall, and affordable housing is certain to come up in its goal setting session, open to the public, 8:30 a.m. Saturday at Hood River Fire Station.

No decisions had been expected Monday on policy or code changes — a point made clear at the outset of the session; the basic mission of the affordable housing strategies discussion was to give staff direction on possible code changes, including specific conditions allowed for renting out STRs.

Most of the public comment Monday came down in favor of making few restrictions, or none, on STRs, though several speakers decried STRs’ impacts on neighborhoods and the lack of affordable housing in general.

“We just need a starting point, some direction to move this along. It’s been idle,” City Manager Steve Wheeler repeatedly told the council, for staff and Planning Commission to work from.

Wheeler and Planning Director Cindy Walbridge submitted reports on the three strategies adopted in early of increased efficiency of: 1— land use for affordable housing; 2 — regulating and managing STRs and other secondary housing; and 3 — developing affordable housing.

Councilor Mark Zanmiller presented an alternative proposal for STR restrictions, which basically called for allowing the number now in place, while Councilor Laurent Picard spoke out strongly in favor of rapidly phasing out STRs and even said he was willing to give up the $38,000 annual income he has been deriving from his own STR.

Thirty citizens spoke, and the dominant message was to make minimal, if any, restrictions on homeowners’ ability to rent out their homes on a short-term basis. The debate came down to respecting homeowners’ investments and providing a range of accommodations attractive to visitors who spend money at local businesses, versus the negative livability impacts on neighborhood stability, as well as noise, parking and other issues that often come with STRs.

STR neighbors reported problems ranging from irritating to chronic, while several STR owners, and two neighbors, said they liked living near them, and that they actually contribute to the neighborhood.

“This is a far more complex problem than just short-term rentals,” Julie Gilbert told the council. “You need to come up with a longer term solution than just taking STRs off the plate. Tourism is intertwined with everything in our town.”

Irma Garcia lives in Parkdale but has long been trying to find a Hood River home.

“I am struggling. The prices just increase,” Garcia said with translation help from Yesenia Castro. “I don’t qualify for low-income but I don’t make enough (for a rental). I cannot afford to live here.”

In a rarity for public meetings, most of those present for the testimony stuck around for the deliberation, and literally cheered when the council moved, at 9:30 p.m., to add the Nov. 16 meeting.

Strategy 2 has clearly become the dominant of the city’s three strategies for dealing with the affordable housing concern as home prices hover at a median $330,000 and costs rise for rental homes and units, making it harder for many in low- to moderate economic segments to find suitable housing in the county.

But several speakers debunked the notion that STRs drive up other rental costs, and defended STRs and vacation homes as both an economic stimulus in the local tourism economy as well as a way for property owners to maintain investments they either live in part of the year or plan to use as their own dwellings in the future.

After Wheeler and Walbridge gave a half-hour preface on the strategy reports, Mayor Paul Blackburn told the audience of 100 or so that it was their turn for testimony, but to limit comments to two minute per person. Blackburn noted that a bell would go off at that time. Comments generally stretched to three minutes though Blackburn kept mostly strict control on the timer. About six speakers in, one person was saying, “I want to clarify a point before my time starts —“ when the “ding” came, starting her two minutes.

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