Affordable places to live are as hard to find on the Oregon coast as they are elsewhere. What makes the scarcity so palpable here is that it exists amid an abundance of large vacation homes. There are many rooms for tourists, but too few for the people who serve them.
A local economy sours when the workers who run it can’t afford to be residents. In such circumstances the label of “community” begins to feel like false packaging. Relationships become impersonal, utilitarian, and one-dimensional. Separation sets in.
This sense of decline may nudge some gentry to reflect on the ethic of noblesse oblige – the inferred responsibility of privileged people to act with generosity toward those less fortunate. Not a bad time to re-watch episodes of Downton Abbey, bask in the light of a bygone world where wealthy elites lived in the same big houses as the laborers who cooked their meals, fluffed their pillows, and ironed their newspapers.
As today’s housing market grows it displaces workers from community. Unless this pattern is addressed we will not solve problems by simply expanding urban growth boundaries, raising skylines, or filling in green spaces. These are often stopgap measures that can easily become yoked to the same market forces that benefit from rising prices.
Recently Oregon legislators took a step in the right direction by voting to lift a ban on inclusionary zoning. This enables local governments to require that affordable units be included in new housing developments. Public leaders have a bit more leverage to align growth with worker needs.
Unfortunately this benefit only applies to developments that are larger than those commonly found in small coastal communities. Also, in order to take this incremental step, lawmakers apparently cut a deal that curbs the ability of local governments to vote on annexation. Now developers have a speedier way to extend the city limits.
Before we rush to enlarge our urban footprint, we should make more efficient use of our existing built environment. This is especially sensible on the coast, where vacation homes are often empty.
One idea that seems promising on this front is to remodel home interiors so there is more flexibility for tenancy. This is an application of what local architect Tom Bender calls “flex-housing.” It enables a homeowner to rent part of their property to long-term tenants while reserving the rest for other uses. The changes can be undone or revised down the road, if necessary.
Surely some owners of vacation homes would like full-time tenants to keep an eye on their place. Transient renters are less prone to abuse property when a good tenant lives in the neighboring unit and it is understood that they play an oversight role with the property.
Of course, if local governments want to encourage long-term tenancy of homes, they can restrict short-term transient rentals. Homeowners who want to use residential properties as hotels can be required to secure bed and breakfast licenses. That means they must have someone living on site involved in guest management. Or, governments can require that homes not be rented to different guests so frequently (no more than once every two weeks, for example).
The last time such restrictions were discussed in Cannon Beach, there was a backlash from stakeholders who profit from short-term rentals. Since then, the growth of companies like Airbnb may have changed the playing field somewhat. But restricting transient rental of homes requires political will, and adequate enforcement means public spending.
I’m prone to consider financial incentives. An economist recently reminded me that when markets create public problems it is appropriate for government to use taxes and fees to leverage corrections. It is reasonable that homeowners who provide affordable rent to long-term tenants should receive a reduction of local taxes or fees.
We could go further. Perhaps affordable flex-housing could be incentivized by allowing owners to generate revenue from part of their property with short-term transient rentals. Local governments could assign a limited number of transient rental licenses to homeowners who are willing to participate. Part of their property could be used as affordable full-time housing to locals. The other part could be rented to vacationers.
And what happens when the owners come to the beach? That’s when the power of community could really kick in. Most people who vacation aren’t just visiting the scenery. They’re reconnecting with locals who they’ve come to know, many who provide valued services and are a central part of the vacation experience.
Here’s a mental exercise for owners of vacation homes (and folks who aren’t, yet visit this area frequently). Think of a favorite local hotel, café, shop, or pub. If you are like me, a big part of visiting a beloved travel destination involves the folks who work there. Consider what it feels like when those people are harried because their places of employment are understaffed due to housing difficulties. Think about how it feels when turnover is so swift that we never develop a real rapport with anybody.
By contrast, imagine that some of the favorite folks you see on vacation are also neighbors. Relationships can take root. You can swap stories on the porch or have a barbeque in the back yard, get to know what’s really happening here. Surely many visitors would like to deepen their connections with this amazing place and it’s year-round residents.
Some may think it far-fetched to envision this remodel of the coastal housing market: from large empty spaces and sporadic superficial contact to intimate quarters and personal friendships. Yet Baby Boomers are downsizing, and Millennials are investing in tiny homes. Some deeper instinct is drawing us closer, back toward community.
Wouldn’t it be great for vacationers to become part of the local pulse, connect with folks who live here? This kind of shift would not just open a door for affordable housing. It might raise the consciousness of tourism.