On March 21, the Hood River Planning Commission came out in overwhelming support of regulations on short term vacation rentals (STRs). After carefully studying housing data and hearing substantial public testimony, six out of seven commissioners heartily endorsed “The Portland Plan,” designed to preserve the livability of Hood River and help retain our limited housing for residents.

The commission’s clear and bold directive is good news for Hood River residents and our city’s diversified economy. Here’s why.

We’re running out of room. Hood River has a severe housing shortage and very little room for growth — a reality well-documented in the city’s 2015 Buildable Lands Inventory and Housing Needs Analysis. Too many Hood River residents can’t find a home to buy or to rent. At the same time, we’ve watched more and more of our neighborhood homes purchased by non-residents. One of every 10 dwellings in Hood River is now a short-term rental and/or vacation home — and the number grows every year.

Because the current lack of regulation lets anyone operate STRs in our residential zones, outside investors can rely on the cash flow from STRs to finance their vacation homes or investment properties. So Hood River residents trying to buy a home lose to investors. Residents who are long-term renters get kicked out for more lucrative short term renters. And residents who do have homes find themselves living next door to random strangers, rather than neighbors. We need to put an end to a policy that makes it easier for investors to buy a home, and makes it more difficult for our own citizens!

The Portland Plan helps preserve our neighborhoods for residents. It would allow hosted home shares and some whole-house rentals in homes occupied by full-time Hood River residents, but phase out investor-owned STRs in residential zones. The reasoning? An STR in a primary residence doesn’t negatively impact housing availability. And that little slice of Hood River’s tourism dollars might help a local resident offset our community’s high cost of housing. The plan also encourages long-term rentals, which are sorely lacking in Hood River.

This simple plan has been adopted successfully by Portland, Ashland and other cities. While opponents may argue that it restricts property rights, the truth is that zoning regulations protect property owners and the community as a whole; it’s why your neighbors can’t run a coffee shop out of their garage. In fact, many of the same people opposing STR regulations here very likely benefit from similar policies protecting their own neighborhoods back in Portland or Seattle.

STRs have a substantial impact on our community. While short term rentals provide a small contribution to our economy, it comes at a high cost to our future prosperity. No city can thrive if it can’t provide housing for its own residents. Without homes for workers, our businesses can’t grow. Without homes for families, our school enrollment numbers shrink and our schools lose funding. Without homes for year-round residents, who volunteers at the senior center, fills the food banks, and fights the oil trains? When you lose your residential neighborhoods to non-residents, you soon lose control of your city’s future.

Some suggest we just let the “free market” run its course — let those with lesser means live elsewhere. But it’s ridiculous and sad to suggest that wasteful commuting for our workforce is the best solution. Or that kids who grew up in Hood River can’t raise their own families here someday. That free-market idea implies that Hood River is bound to turn into a vacation playground of wealthy second homeowners, and that we, the residents, better step aside and let it happen.

Let’s plan a better solution. Dozens of cities have crafted regulations to protect the integrity of their residential neighborhoods. We have successful examples right here in Oregon, a national leader in land use. The Portland Plan is a straightforward, logical step that makes sense for Hood River, too.

If we do nothing, we risk doing real damage to our economy, undermining our residential neighborhoods, and losing the authentic, diverse character — and characters! — that makes Hood River such a wonderful place to live. Right now, outside interests are lobbying hard against regulations, telling us what’s best for our community. Our Planning Commission wisely rejected their arguments, and our City Council should, too.

Because this is our home, and it’s our future. Small-town politics can be uncomfortable and messy. But this is one of those issues that demands strong leadership and hard decisions. Let’s protect our community, so it’s still a real community 20 years from now. Let’s be the little city that gets it right.

Tina Lassen is a Hood River resident, a founding member of LivableHoodRiver.org, and co-chair of the Hood River County Visitor Council.

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