Time to step up — Is coastal living in jeopardy? Part IV

© 2017-Siuslaw News

‘People need jobs; jobs need people. And people need a place to live’

Dec. 6, 2017 — In recent years, the City of Florence has taken on the motto of “A City in Motion.” One area that has seen renewed interest is economic development, and with that, housing.

“You cannot talk about one without the other,” said Florence City Manager Erin Reynolds. “People need jobs; jobs need people. And people need a place to live. It’s always been foundational in economic development materials and in the academia world.”

She said traditional models for predicting population changes are not working for the new norm of American culture.

“Your traditional economic development theory has always been the mindset that people follow jobs — so jobs come first, then comes housing. It has played out that way for years. … That mindset and professional stance are changing, as our culture and lifestyles are changing,” Reynolds said.

Now, people are choosing quality of life as a main factor for where they want to live.

“They are looking for whatever they want: clean air, clean water, recreation, trails, rivers, oceans, mountains — you name it. They go there, and then they find their job,” she said.

Or people bring their jobs, especially those who work remotely or online.

“Where they want to live is so important that they’re just going to make it work once they get there,” Reynolds said. “That’s happening across all economic strata. That’s a very different way of living than before.”

Under the older model, developers built affordable housing in communities that were experiencing a boom in their population. They avoided areas that didn’t reflect healthy and sustained growth.

Florence is finally recovering from the economic recession 10 years ago, but the developers aren’t coming yet.

“One way I look at is, the easy individual and market answer has not been happening for quite some time,” Reynolds said. “If that’s not meeting the true need or demand of the community, we have to look at the next steps. That might be doing something different than what has been done before.”

According to Florence Mayor Joe Henry, Florence is “coming out of hibernation.”

During a November city council meeting, he said, “Take a look back and see how much exactly was going on three years ago. We’re playing catch up in many areas, and I’m just extremely proud of our city government and what we are doing to provide services to our community, much of it above and beyond the call of our responsibility provided for in our charter. I am thankful for our team as a council, for our staff and for the ‘City in Motion’ because we have many, many things going on.”

Last week, Lane County Commissioner Jay Bozievich held a “telephone town hall” with constituents. During the call, which included up to 1,000 county residents, housing was a big topic.

“It has risen to every government level. Everybody is talking about it,” Bozievich said. “Housing and economic development are intertwined. There has been difficulty in the economic development side since it’s hard to generate new business or revitalize established businesses when the county lacks workforce housing.”

And it isn’t just a local problem, but one dealt with in many areas of the state.

According to the governor’s office, “Gov. Kate Brown heard time and again, from companies and communities alike, that the lack of workforce housing presents a clear threat to continued growth and prosperity. … State agencies are looking at their current programs and tools to find opportunities to partner with communities, the business sector and private housing developers to address the workforce housing shortage in Oregon.”

In October, the City of Florence submitted a request for information letter to the governor’s office about a new Workforce Housing Initiative.

“They are trying to take tools that are already in the state’s toolbox, that already exist and are already funded, plus some new additional things,” said Reynolds. “That could be money, resources or support so they can come and help fill the gap so they can incentivize workforce housing.”

Reynolds defined “workforce housing” as different for every community. In Florence, it would be a request for more affordable housing, especially for lower income families.

In its submission, Florence noted that the state’s timing is aligned with the city’s current plans and goals to address the housing needs of the community, including a projected demand of 510 housing units in the next five years.

The request for information also included “opportunities” — or places where the city has already begun to develop plans. Some of these include:

  • Establishing a goal to provide workforce housing
  • Creating the Housing and Economic Opportunities Project (HEOP) Committee
  • Engaging with local and regional non-profit and for-profit housing developers that have expressed interest in investing in workforce housing developments
  • Considering amending the Florence Comprehensive Plan policies to eliminate barriers to workforce and affordable housing developments
  • Reviewing local policies and regulations regarding short-term rentals and how they impact the long-term rental market
  • Identifying a number of sites that are vacant and zoned for workforce housing developments, especially near the city center, and looking for ways to secure future sites
  • Refining its housing development feasibility model to determine and bridge funding gaps for specific projects
  • Focusing on economic development to bring momentum and growth.

“The City is now considering ways to promote workforce housing development in conjunction with business expansion proposals by major employers, such as Peace Harbor Hospital, the Siuslaw School District, Lane County Community College and various tourism and recreation oriented businesses,” the submission stated.

Other partnerships have been with economic drivers in the area, from the Regional Accelerator and Innovation Network (RAIN), South Coast Development Council, Siuslaw Vision 2025 and Florence Area Chamber of Commerce.

Letters of support came from Siuslaw Outreach Services, Siuslaw Elementary School, investors working to develop Florence-area businesses and PeaceHealth Peace Harbor Medical Center.

As mayor, Henry thanked the governor for addressing the need for housing and offering Florence the chance to apply.

“The lack of adequate workforce housing is holding Florence back from its potential growth. One thing that I have learned is simply, if we are not growing, we are dying. That is why this initiative is so imperative. I support all efforts related to bringing more workforce housing to our great city, and feel it is essential for our growth and prosperity. Thank you for offering assistance in creating a path forward to address this very serious issue,” he wrote.

In his town hall, Bozievich said that 73 percent of his listeners were aware of the housing crisis.

“I’m surprised at how many people were unaware,” he said of the remaining 27 percent.

The five county commissioners sit on the board of Housing and Community Services Agency of Lane County (HACSA), since it serves as the housing authority in Lane County and administers funding from the Oregon Department of Housing and Urban Development.

HACSA reports that approximately one third of all Lane County residents are housing burdened because they spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing.

Bozievich thinks Oregon has one solution: Senate Bill 1051.

SB 1051 requires cities with population greater than 5,000 or counties with population greater than 25,000 to review and decide on applications for certain housing developments containing affordable housing units within 100 days. It became effective Aug. 15, 2017.

“In the short term, SB 1051 opens us up to accessory dwelling units,” Bozievich said. “This could double the housing stock in western Lane County very quickly with affordable options.”

Florence Planning Director Wendy FarleyCampbell has definite plans for accessory dwelling units in the Florence area.

“A lot of our current houses are smaller homes on bigger lots, and some of those have been rezoned where they could have at least two dwellings on the same lot. That is an opportunity. If we could get some implementation of some of the code that we’ve done would be nice,” she said.

Creating more population density would help keep buildable land available for people who want to build multi-family housing.

One form of multi-family housing that may be unfamiliar to people is cottage housing, where multiple units, often unattached, share a common outdoor space. These units can range from so-called “tiny homes” to more standard, 1,100-square-foot buildings.

“I personally have three senior friends whose spouses have passed away and they would move into this style of living tomorrow if they were available,” FarleyCampbell said. “One of them is living paycheck to paycheck wishing she had some place to move to. She doesn’t want to leave Florence, she doesn’t want to go live with her daughter. She wants to stay with her friends. But she has no place to go. That’s what she wants — some little place without the yardwork or maintenance. Not an apartment.”

She said that updates to the city’s codes would encourage such alternative spaces, especially as they could be affordable options not only for Florence’s established, often senior, population, but also for couples or young families.

“They’re congregated around an area so you have a built community, or neighborhood if you will, that’s on a microscale, like a block. They have shared common spaces. If they want to garden or dink around, there is usually a place to grow some carrots or roses or whatever they want to do. They can still have the ability to do that, but a lot of the areas are common and have a landscaper. Two of the women I mentioned are already paying HOA-type fees for those services, so that wouldn’t be a change for them. They just want a smaller, more manageable house size,” FarleyCampbell said.

One group looking to initiate this cottage program is the Neighborhood Economic Development Corporation (NEDCO). All it would take is some available land — NEDCO’s current model is to use donated land — that could be zoned multifamily. From there, the nonprofit agency would build one- to two-bedroom cottages for low-income housing.

Alternative methods may be a way to get outside investment for Florence’s housing.

According to FarleyCampbell, several developers have looked into the community, but balked for various reasons.

“There were some Portland developers who said they could build something, but they would need to charge $1,200 rents. We went, ‘There’s no one here who could pay $1,200 in rent — not enough people,’” she said. “Usually demand drives price. If there was more housing available and less demand, that usually makes prices drop. One thing we could do would be to improve the quality of jobs we’ve got so that people make more money to afford the rents. If we improve our economic position, that can’t hurt.”

HEOP is currently looking at financial barriers within the existing city code, and possible ways to improve the process and make it more affordable.

Besides continued new construction, land owners have other options to replenish the housing stock: repair, maintain and update their existing housing units.

“The council made this a goal because of the issues with a lot of the housing stock. We need to do something about that. Some of the policies the council will be looking at will be creating incentives for owners of those to demo and build up those lots, and to infill so there is suitable housing for people locally,” FarleyCampbell said.

She said incentives could help encourage someone to knock down a building with mold growing up the walls and redevelop the property, hopefully with greater density.

Much of FarleyCampbell’s information comes from recent surveys conducted by the City of Florence, HEOP and professional housing economist consultants the FCS Group.

HEOP held its fourth and last meeting yesterday for the FCS Group to go over final findings on the Buildable Land Analysis, Housing Needs Analysis, Employment Needs Analysis and Policy Considerations undertaken since April. These recommendations will then be taken to the Florence City Council and Planning Commission to implement necessary changes to Florence City Code.

Reynolds said one of those topics will be the addition of accessory dwelling units.

“We have to figure out what that means for our community,” Reynolds said. “This housing code process will be very similar to the process we went through with marijuana to implement local rules and regulations for a statewide mandated item. That was a process that went really well. There was a lot of good communication, and a lot of coordination with the council and planning commission, and with the community in listening to concerns. This is just yet another big item that impacts daily lives, and they will be working through that.”

HEOP is looking at several components of current city code, including City of Florence’s rates, especially for building permits and system development charges (SDC).

As far as FarleyCampbell can tell, the city’s costs are reasonable, and could be a draw for people to bring new developments to the city.

“For a residential permit, we can get you out the door in 10 days. For that same exact work in Lane County, it will be months. Our building permit process, per se, is not bad,” she said.

She said people who want to build an addition to a current house pay less than $500 for a permit. People who want to build a home pay $2-2,500.

“That includes permits for all your inspections for electrical and plumbing. What is the high part of the permit — I don’t think it’s too high — is the systems development fee. Those aren’t permitting fees, it’s an additional fee that has nothing to do with permits,” she said.

SDCs are a charge for water, sewer, storm water and roads that the developer pays into the system.

“You’re building a new structure, you’re getting hooked up to sewer or the water, having a street built in front of you, the streetlights are there. You haven’t needed to do any of that,” FarleyCampbell said. “Somebody put those in, and they were put in with SDCs that somebody else paid years ago. You’re paying yours for the people down the line, for whatever system improvements need to be done.

“It’s a cost of doing business, and businesses can be $30,000. It’s not some little amount. It’s a big price. For a house, the SDC is just over $12,000 for brand-new construction.”

Compared to the price of a septic tank in the county, which can cost $20,000, she doesn’t think that number is too high.

For land owners who want to rebuild a house, those SDCs were already paid with the original construction.

With the changing housing market landscape, some cities are looking to revise their SDC process.

“Florence may consider varying SDCs by home size, as a way to lower the cost of delivering more affordable housing,” the letter to the governor continued. “Newport recently changed its SDC methodology from a single fee per single family home (similar to Florence’s current SDC method) to a variable SDC that takes into account home size.”

Until new developments come in, there are things people can do now to alleviate some of the stress of Florence’s housing crisis.

FarleyCampbell said, “At City Hall, there’s a list of information we provide at the counter here for people with questions on housing.”

Much of the information details the rights of the renter and landlord and some basic information on some of the subsidized housing resources in the state and Lane County.

“We have some answers for them to some degree about HACSA and other housing resources locally — which there are not a lot. It’s all lottery, too. Maybe you’ll get some help, but you’re competing with everyone else in the county,” she said.

The big thing is that people need to be self-advocates who know their rights.

People also need to find the resources that can provide housing vouchers or direct them to low-cost housing. In the Florence area, Oregon Housing and Community Services indicates there are nine low-cost housing sites, with a varying number of units (egov.hcs.state.or.us/reser/APS/LowCostHousing.jsp). Using those links, people can be in contact with owners and managers of the properties.

One resource to connect people and housing services is HACSA. The agency is committed to providing safe, affordable and energy-efficient housing for low-income families, elderly citizens and persons with disabilities. It provides housing and supportive services to more than 5,000 Lane County families a year through Section 8 and its public and affordable housing programs.

Section 8 is a subsidized rental assistance program based on household income where participants locate their own rental unit. HACSA reported that as of October, there were 84 Section 8 households in Florence.

Under its affordable housing branch, HACSA has 1,628 units of affordable housing in the county, and 707 units are public housing, which HACSA manages and maintains. In Florence, Munsel Park has 44 units and New Winds has 18 units, which together serve 64 residents.

HACSA Public Relations Director Ela Kubok said, “If you successfully receive the housing voucher based on your income, we estimate how much you pay in rent and how much needs to be subsidized. The premise is for households to never pay more than 30 percent of their income for rent.”

She said it is up to the renters to find housing, as all HACSA can provide is the voucher.

Besides providing housing options, which unfortunately have closed waiting lists at this time, HACSA also provides energy services for property owners and renters. This division provides weatherization, conservation strategies and energy education to reduce cost and improve livability of property.

HACSA encourages people to join its Family Self Sufficiency Program, which teaches about savings, goal setting and time and resource management in order to help families achieve financial independence.

“It’s designed to help people achieve their goals,” Kubok said. “From purchasing homes, graduating with a degree, changing jobs or no longer needing rent assistance, people in the program get to learn how to do that with the help of a counselor.”

NEDCO and Siuslaw Outreach Services, located in Florence, also offer similar services.

In addition to assistance services, HACSA has a whole list of resources for landlords, including workshops and ways that the agency can provide support.

“I had a meeting with HACSA, and it was exciting. I had no idea they had all those programs,” FarleyCampbell said. “They’re looking to do something in Florence and trying to find opportunities and people to partner with.”

According to HACSA Executive Director Jacob Fox, “We’re actively looking for land to develop affordable homes in the area. We’re preserving affordable housing as a priority and seeking new and out-of-the-box development opportunities.”

Other housing and community resources include Neighborhood Economic Development Corporation (NEDCO) and Oregon Housing and Community Services.

Despite the struggles, people are still moving to Florence. Social media pages often show new people reaching out to the community about anything from housing options to recreation recommendations.

“People love it here,” FarleyCampbell said. “Why are any of us here? Quality of life. It’s the No. 1 best response on what Florence has going for it.”

She said that current growth is just going to help Florence get better.

Bozievich agreed.

“The need for workforce housing is critical,” he said. “If Florence can solve it, it will put us ahead of other communities. Whichever areas solve the housing issue will likely win future economic development battles.”

For FarleyCampbell, it will start with taking the HEOP results and updating city code.

“There’s some amazing things we can do in the short term,” she said. “Policy stuff may take a little longer, because there’s a financial angle that needs to be pursued. But, if we get one big developer in here and we’ll feel relief. You will see the waters recede.

“There are some interests in local businesses that are going to generate a need for housing — lots more housing than what we have. It’s possible that some of that need may be accomplished by developers that would directly benefit from having suitable housing for a suitable workforce. But we’ll see. We’re looking at grants with the state, not necessarily to be competitive but to try to get those state agencies to look at our applications, our properties, our potential, and saying, ‘We’ve got to find something in Florence to invest in, because we want to be part of that.’ We’re a little jaded, but we think we’re awesome. We’re trying to appeal to those agencies to sink some money into Florence.”

In the end, FarleyCampbell said the city has been working behind the scenes on the housing issue, but, until now, waited for a grant cycle to try to secure funding.

“The city is dropping a big nickel doing this HEOP study without a grant. It shows the commitment of the city council to say, ‘Listen, we need to do this. We can’t wait year after year to try to be competitive for a grant,’ which is how a lot of communities rely on getting it done,” she said.

Reynolds said the HEOP process is just getting started, even as the final meeting wraps up this week.

“While the HEOP committee’s role, in having the consultant and doing the survey, is coming to the end, it signals a kicking off point for Florence City Council and the Planning Commission to start doing their part of the work,” she said. “Our role is to provide a healthy, safe community environment from which people can live and make those choices. … As a city, we’re really in the foundations by providing a great place to work and live and play. It’s up to the individual or community group to move in what has been deemed a successful direction.”

This is echoed by Florence Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Bettina Hannigan, who sees multiple people in her office each week talking about housing. Some are stopping by the Visitor’s Center to pick up a relocation packet, and some are asking her about the state of the housing.

“It’s all about the three A’s: awareness, advocacy and action,” Hannigan said. “Our community cannot depend on the government to meet these needs. It’s not the government’s responsibility to do private sector work, its responsibility is to govern. It’s important for people to start saying, ‘We’re going to need to step up.’”

People are encouraged to serve on city boards and committees, or work with agencies that help match people and resources. The point is to get creative.

Hannigan said she intends to invite a friend who works in the housing development field to stay with her to give her ideas on what she, personally, can do.

The chamber can be a hub of resources for people looking to help, she added. It can be a solution center as the city, chamber, county and local non-profit and for-profit groups work together to tackle housing.

“The future of our solutions is in partnerships,” Hannigan said. “Not one person is going to have the solution or be the answer. It’s going to have to be a partnership for what’s best for our community.

“It’s time to step up.”

Note: This is part 4 of a 10 part series. Find additional installments in the Special Series Archive, located here.