Before I moved to Portland from California, my mother and I were homeless for a year, due to circumstances that are best left undiscussed.
My mother, who longed to return to the Northwest, where she had lived for several years, finally escaped the life we were living. She put me in her 1954 Buick Special in the middle of the night and drove to Portland. We had two suitcases and enough money to buy gas for the trip north.
Portland became my “home” for more than four decades before I took up permanent residence in Cannon Beach on Feb. 2, 2007.
At least I thought Portland was home. The city nurtured me through middle and high school and several colleges until I earned my master’s degree. I had boyfriends and husbands in Portland, lived in apartments and a large house there and worked through an amazing journalism career.
I wrote about urban renewal projects that threw people out of their homes in Northeast Portland. I watched through the years as the carefully crafted comprehensive plan for the Portland waterfront and local neighborhoods went sideways when the world discovered – and populated – this gem of a city.
By the time I pulled out of town nine years ago, the Pearl District had already been built and plans for many more high-rise, high-cost condos and apartments throughout Portland were on the city planner’s desk. Yet, housing the homeless had already been a local issue for 20 years.
But Portland wasn’t the only area I explored. I bought a small lot near the ocean just south of Lincoln City; my late husband and I built a 120-square-foot cabin on it. We brought in our own water and cooked on a propane stove.
In the woods on 20 acres along the Sandy River, we built a tree house 12 feet high, anchored by three cedars. We carried an air mattress across a precarious footbridge over a small creek, down a block-long path through blackberry bushes and up the stairs to the tree house to camp overnight. We ate supper on our tree house “deck” overlooking the river, where, in the full moon, the water looked like silver mercury swirling around the rocks.
But none of these places honestly felt like “home.” Something never settled in my heart.
In 2001, I bought the 520-square-foot cabin on the north side of Cannon Beach. By then, Alzheimer’s disease had defeated my husband’s speech, and all he could do to indicate his approval was to nod and smile. At first, the cabin became a weekend respite – a getaway from the city’s confusion for both of us. A place to breathe in ocean air and to take quiet walks on the beach or in the woods.
But after my husband’s death, followed by a job offer to edit the Cannon Beach Gazette, the cabin became my permanent residence. Later, I moved to a slightly larger house surrounded by trees in midtown. And it is here – on the North Coast – that I have, indeed, finally found my home.
I know it is home because my heart says so. I still thrill at the view of Haystack Rock and the expanse of beach to the south from the “S” curves in midtown or the way the raindrops hanging from the branches outside my window sparkle in the morning sun.
Although I have no “blood” relatives, I have found “family” here who have welcomed me as a long-lost sister. In just nine years, I have met and become true friends with more people than I ever knew in four decades in Portland. They will never realize how much that has meant to me.
I have also come to appreciate what it means to live in a village where a true sense of “community” exists, whether it is contained in occasional town-wide potlucks or standing-room-only City Council meetings, where local issues are thoroughly thrashed out. This is a village that has a rich heritage of characters and caring that should never be lost.
Guiding the village’s development is a comprehensive plan. First written in 1979, it was crafted following many conversations with residents who were asked how they wanted to maintain village life and still make room for changes that were bound to come.
The plan’s “fundamental principle,” is to “foster a community with a strong sense of place which provides its residents the quality of life that they desire.” That includes “community spiritedness” where innovative solutions are developed; diversity, “where residents have a variety of lifestyles” that are accepted by the community; and, finally, a “small town atmosphere that is characterized by a relaxed pace of life, a friendly informal setting.”
But lately, it seems this preamble to the comprehensive plan has been at odds with what the plan identifies as three major sectors of the village’s economy: tourism, the second home industry and retirement.
Although the plan directs the city to enhance these economic sectors “in a manner that results in the desired balance between the residential and resort elements of the community,” the challenge may be proving too difficult.
Beginning with spring break in March, and ending with holiday celebrations in December, the village we like to call home is turned over to daytrippers who have discovered this gem of a city. Despite ordinances that restrict home rentals to overnight guests, second homes in Cannon Beach have become a hot commodity for beach rental agencies and websites such as Airbnb and VRBO.
As a result, life in this small village at least 10 months of the year – not counting sunny weekends in January and February – isn’t too relaxed for those of us who call it home. Our two main streets are clogged with cars, the sidewalks are crowded with pedestrians and our parking lots are full. Vehicles are parked bumper-to-bumper in residential areas where homes are becoming commercial enterprises. That is hardly the “rustic streetscape” originally envisioned in the comprehensive plan.
With the pressure to be a resort destination outweighing efforts to maintain the town as a residential community, young families who do want to call Cannon Beach home can’t find an affordable apartment or house. This means that those we need to be our volunteer firefighters, our police officers and employees in local businesses must live elsewhere.
But finding somewhere to live permanently anywhere on the North Coast is becoming increasingly difficult. Strangers are loving us to death.
As a result, our sense of “village” – a small community where everyone knows and cares about their neighbors, where diversity is celebrated and small traditions are cherished – is being threatened.
I have sat in meetings where city officials have grappled with the problem. Members of the city’s affordable housing committee recently all but gave up when faced with the obstacles standing in their way to provide low-cost solutions. There’s too little vacant land, and what is available is too costly to buy and provide services (water, sewer, power, streets). Small accessory apartments can be added to existing houses, but few property owners are building them, and those who do are renting them out to visitors.
Because two-thirds of the city’s budget depends on lodging taxes, our property taxes are kept relatively low. Thus, the city has no real incentive to offer property owners who provide long-term rentals when they can earn so much more with overnighters. And residents enjoying those “lower” property taxes may also be disinclined to pay more for fewer tourists.
I was once an overnighter who fell in love with this community and wanted to settle here. I happened to be lucky to find a house that I could afford (but when I went to buy my current home, I had to sell two houses to do it – my northside house and my Portland house). I’m still in love with this village, but every day, I worry that what made Cannon Beach what it was when I first moved here — a “friendly, informal setting” – is slipping away.
I have no answers, unfortunately. It’s a conundrum that can’t be handed over to just a few individuals to deal with. The flood of tourism is as much an emergency as the impending tsunami; we all need to be involved.
Maybe it’s time to take another look at the comprehensive plan. Cannon Beach is a community with a strong sense of place that provides its residents the quality of life that they desire, it says. Maybe we need to wrangle that “community spiritedness” we pride ourselves in and, together, develop some innovative solutions, as we have done in the past.
If we don’t, we may just lose this place we call home.