Cannon Beach wants to provide a lifeboat for residents in rising tide of housing costs

(photo: KATU News)

Cannon Beach city councilors unanimously passed an affordable housing plan December 6, that could be the lifeline the city needs to stabilize its housing crisis.

After a yearlong study, the Cannon Beach Affordable Housing Task Force recommended the city convert several sites at a city-owned RV park for park-model homes, or tiny homes, ripping a page from Portland’s book.

City Manager Brant Kucera says the small town’s tourist economy cannot continue to function if its workforce cannot afford to live there.

“If we do not address the housing crisis, we will not attract the workers in the hotel industries, the food service industries,” he said. “If you can't supply the demand, eventually that demand is going to go away.”

The task force found that “from a community development perspective, Cannon Beach is no longer healthy and balanced.”

They continued by saying, long-term full-time employees cannot afford or even find a place to rent in the city, and that there is “virtually no readily available rental housing for families or those professionals who are crucial to the functioning of the community, such as police officers, firefighters, city employees and health officials.”

In 2014, employer surveys and population data from the U.S. Census revealed more than 1,000 employees worked in Cannon Beach. Out of 1,104 employees:

43% earned less than $11 an hour

42% earned between $11 - $16 an hour

15% earned between $16 - $21 an hour

The task force found that 45% of full-time year-round employees earn more than 50% of the average median income, meaning these professionals make too much to qualify for publicly subsidized housing and too little to afford market rate rentals or homes.

They found the City’s housing problem is one of a “lack of affordable housing for the missing middle.”

Cannon Beach Fire Chief Matt Benedict is part of the “missing middle.”

Benedict was forced to temporarily stay in the fire station, while he searched for a home. He slept in the bunks and prepared dinner in the kitchen.

“My whole life is exposed here in the fire station,” he told KATU. “I had no private time. If anyone walks in, I'm on duty 24/7.”

After two months, Benedict found a modest home about six blocks away from the station, but had to sell two properties in Pendleton to afford one in Cannon Beach.

“There's plenty of houses for sale, but the affordability of them, some of them are way expensive,” he said. “I was expecting to be able to come in, find a house, buy a house right off the bat As a fire chief, I should be part of the community that I work in.”

The housing task force found that almost 60% of the homes in the coastal town are considered “second-homes,” meaning they sit empty for most of the year and are not available as long-term rentals.

Kucera says the majority of city-employees do not live in Cannon Beach, and it’s not uncommon for part-time professionals who work in the service industry to commute from Astoria, Seaside, Hillsboro, Nehalem or Tillamook.

“During the summer, and I don't know where some of them worked, but we had people, younger people, sleeping in their cars on the highway and that was their housing,” Kucera said. “That's unacceptable!”

Cannon Beach Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Court Carrier says short-term rentals and vacation rentals aren’t the only problem. Land is expensive, and the City’s urban growth boundary is limiting.

“It's a resort destination and as a result, you do have housing that is more expensive,” Carrier said. “A person who owns a home has an option: Do they want to rent it out as a vacation rental or do they want to rent it out as long-term housing? Even if you rented out as long-term housing, they can't make enough money back to pay their mortgage.”

Carrier found at one point last year, there was only one long-term rental unit available in Clatsop County, leading businesses to find creative ways to attract employees.

“Businesses have gone to the extent of buying their own housing and supplying that to their staff at a reasonable rate,” he said.

Carrier supports the city’s push for affordable housing.

“There is enough of a workforce, but it is a challenge to find them,” Carrier said. “The businesses in the community can't live without these issues being addressed and solved.”

The city plans to develop up to 10 tiny-home sites at the Cannon Beach Park Home Community, creating a pilot program for affordable workforce housing. If the project is successful, the city could expand to 25 sites. Kucera says if the demand is there, the city may build two-bedroom townhomes for couples and small families on an acre of land currently occupied by Tolovana Hall.

The customizable park-model homes are approximately 400 sq. feet and cost between $30,000 and $60,000, depending on the features, and could be readily connected to existing water and electrical systems in the RV park. The small space would accommodate one or two people. The homes will be city-owned. Clatsop County will manage the properties.

“The type of resident that we want, is someone who is going to bring children with them, someone who is going to move up economically,” Kucera said. “We are not growing in population anymore, yet the demand for our services and our demand for the people being here in Cannon Beach has gone up significantly.”

Kucera says some residents do not support the project, but continued by saying, the city will no longer be able to function without a workforce.

“Besides finding water, finding shelter is the most important thing,” Kucera said. “We can't call ourselves a form of government that represents people, if we are not willing to address the most critical issue that affects the people.”

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