The $385,000 question

By RAELYNN RICARTE

News staff writer

October 7, 2006

Single-family homes in Hood River are now selling for an average of $385,000 — placing the American Dream of ownership beyond the reach of even middle-income professionals.

“It’s obvious that the workforce of Hood River can’t afford to live here if they are just buying a house now,” said Cindy Walbridge, city planning director.

Last year, when local governments began researching the issue, the average selling price in Hood River was $229,921. A multi-agency task force headed by Walbridge was then put together to compile data and scout out solutions.

She recently delivered the findings of the Affordable Housing Committee to the Hood River City Council. And she will carry the same report to the Hood River County Commission at 4 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 20. A meeting with the Port of Hood River is also being scheduled for the near future.

Walbridge said it has become clear that, without some type of government intervention, more and more workers in Hood River will have to become commuters to buy a home. She said that trend deprives the community of nurses, firefighters, teachers and others in careers that provide valuable services.

According to Walbridge, an individual earning a $60,000 annual salary can only afford a $245,000 house to avoid becoming “mortgage poor.” And the price in Hood River makes it difficult for most homeowners to meet the financial recommendation that 30-35 percent of an income be spent on house payments.

“The number one outcry that we heard in our recent visioning process was, ‘Where are our children going to live and where are we going to live when we get older?’” said Walbridge.

She said the high cost of land, at $90,000-$100,000 on a 7,500 square foot lot, is contributing to the problem. In addition, development fees run about $10,000 per house. Walbridge said many builders find it difficult to make a profit without setting a high price on new homes.

The grim scenario in Hood River is being played out to a lesser degree in outlying areas of the county. According to recent stats compiled by local realtors, a buyer can pick up a home in Cascade Locks for about $164,875; in Odell for $198,083 and in Parkdale for $316,606.

Walbridge said, while home values may have spiked, the median household income in Hood River County is $38,531 — not enough to cover the necessary payment.

HOPE (Housing for People) Director Richard Sassara recently calculated that 85 percent of the county’s population can no longer afford to buy a dwelling in today’s market.

“We have reached the point where we need to make affordable housing an objective or accept workers living elsewhere,” said Walbridge.

Her committee is recommending that local officials take the following actions:

* Seek out state and federal grants to offset infrastructure costs for new middle-income subdivisions.

* Adopt a second tier of fees to lower the construction costs for affordable housing plans.

* Set up a community land bank from surplused public parcels or those donated by private parties.

* Levy some type of additional fee on second homes that are used only part of the year to raise money for full-time needs.

In addition, the committee wants local governments to ask for the following legislative changes at the state level:

* Have Oregon follow Washington state’s example and adopt a real estate excise tax that would open up a revenue source for more housing.

* Legalize inclusionary zoning, which would require developers to dedicate a certain number of lots in a subdivision for lower-income dwellings. These models would appear the same architecturally as the more expensive residences nearby but would sell for less money.

Both the city council and county commission have taken the first step toward overcoming the housing challenge.

The council recently granted property owners the right to build a small accessory dwelling on their lots. The unit cannot be larger than 800 square feet and must be used as a long-term rental or inhabited by an elderly or needy family member.

In order to streamline the building process for accessory dwellings, the elected body refrained from setting design standards that would require a lengthy review process.

Meanwhile, the county is moving ahead on plans to turn its State Street parking lot into a residential center.

Officials believe there is room for eight to 10 condominiums in the lot across from the county administration building. The 16,000-square-foot space can either be leased or sold, a decision that will be made once all of the development options are thoroughly investigated.

“We can control the prices on this piece of property because the land is already owned,” said David Meriwether, county administrator.

One challenge that officials expect to encounter in the development of more affordable housing is “NIMBY-ism,” which means Not In My Back Yard.

Walbridge is hopeful that, through an educational outreach, the Hood River community can come to a better understanding of the situation.

“It’s important to have a town comprised of many mixed incomes to avoid the ‘gated-community syndrome’ where everybody is the same. And people lose perspective over what our world is about,” she said.

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