When I first moved here 16 years ago, people were already talking about Hood River’s “Aspen-ization.” The transformation of our small rural county into a glitzy, exclusive resort community seemed a very long way away.
It’s a whole lot closer now. A national travel site recently ranked Hood River as the number one place in the U.S. to invest in a winter vacation home. That got my attention.
So have we become a resort community? The evidence sure shows we are at a tipping point. By 2016 U.S. Census data, about 8.8 percent of homes in Hood River County are not used for full-time residents but are for “seasonal, recreational or occasional use.” Prices are rocketing above what local people can afford. Hood River home prices are in the top 1 percent of rural counties across the nation. Only one out of 10 Hood River residents can afford today’s median listed home price of $525,000 — about $100,000 more than in Portland or Bend.
We’ve got choices to make. What kind of community do we want to live in? If we don’t want to be another Aspen, how do we keep this a real place for real working families, where tourism is just part of a diverse economy?
The policy choices we make can tip the balance. Right now, there are policies that incentivize wealthy people to buy a second home in Hood River and make it harder for local people to afford their first one or get into a rental.
Over the last few years, Hood River Valley Residents Committee has become concerned as we watch the number of short-term rentals (known as STRs or vacation rentals) in Hood River climb to be a growing share of our overall housing stock. Many are second homes (or third or fourth) and aren’t occupied by the owners except for a few weeks. The going (and lucrative) STR rates — $300 to $700 a night — pay the mortgage and taxes.
And our state and federal tax codes subsidize second-home ownership with appealing tax breaks.
Dark houses during the week with raucous weekend bashes — that’s too familiar for more and more neighbors who complain about losing their sense of community. The rush to acquire STRs in Hood River as investments has increased home prices and rental rates beyond what local people can afford. Second-home owners often claim they can’t afford their second home without sweet STR income. With Hood River’s housing crisis, we’re far more concerned with helping local folks get into their first home.
Over the last two years, our local governments have started to regulate STRs. The City of Hood River made an impact by simply requiring that STRs be part of a permanent residence. Already, former STRs have returned to the long-term rental market or have been put on the market.
This week, Hood River County will reconsider its STR rules. The county’s current code allows STRs as “home occupations” as long as the STR operator is a resident. Inevitably, many applicants couldn’t provide proof of residency because they really live in Georgia or Portland or California. The county now says that they didn’t intend to be so strict and have proposed amendments that allow STR’s everywhere as “accessory uses” with no requirement that owners live here.
The Board of Commissioners hoped to keep the number of STRs small by putting a cap of 100 permits for the county. Sites like AirBnB, Homeaway, VRBO, and county records show that there are more than 125 STRs already, half of them with owners who don’t live in Hood River.
Bravo to Hood River’s commissioners for taking on STRs and their willingness to get a handle on them before they get out of control. But instead of loosening regulations now, they should stick with their residency requirement and start enforcing their cap.
We have a choice to not go the way of Aspen. Nobody knows our community better than the people who live and work here. Join the conversation on STRs at the Hood River Planning Commission hearing, 5:30 p.m. on Jan. 24 at the County Administration Building, 601 State St., or send your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Heather Staten is executive director of the Hood River Valley Residents’ Committee, whose mission is to protect Hood River’s farms, forests, wild places and the livability of its cities and rural communities.