Local leaders are seeking ways to encourage development of more entry level homes?

For the past couple months, a lack of affordable housing in Crook County has come to the forefront.

The problem first emerged when regional nonprofits discovered a severe lack of rental vacancies throughout the Central Oregon area. The issue surfaced again when the troubling results of the Point in Time homeless count were attributed to an affordable housing deficiency.

The situation has since pushed some to question how such a problem can be fixed and who has the means to do it.

Late last month, local business owner Greg Lambert, who is a member of the Economic Development of Central Oregon (EDCO) board, approached the Prineville City Council in hopes that it could incentivize the development of more affordable housing in Crook County.

He said that he had learned, during a recent EDCO function in Bend, that rising house prices in that community had resulted in a reduced workforce because people had to look elsewhere to afford a home. In Redmond, at another EDCO gathering, he heard representatives from large manufacturers that they struggled to find an adequate number of employees.

“One of them said employees will leave a full-time benefitted job, working for them, to take a temporary or seasonal job with a contractor for $15 an hour more.

Lambert feels that Prineville could benefit from the combination of the trends in Bend and Redmond, and offer a place for people a place to live and work - if local leaders find a way to promote construction of more affordable housing in the community.

“I don’t know all of this answers because I don’t know the intricacies of the law and rules,” he said, “But if there is some way that the city council, maybe in conjunction with the Crook County Court, can make it less expensive for people to build multi-family dwellings or other kinds of housing in town, we have an opportunity to capitalize on something that the rest of Central Oregon, at this point, is not capitalizing on.”

As it turns out, the city councilors didn’t have all the answers either. In fact, at this point, they have yet to understand what is causing the recent lack of affordable housing.

“This is such a complex issue,” said Councilor Steve Uffelman, a realtor with The Associates, in Prineville. “There is no simple solution because ultimately, housing costs money to create, to build, and to do the necessary infrastructure.”

Uffelman pointed out that the current system development charges that developers pay before building a home are the same regardless of the size of the structure they build. Consequently, larger, more expensive homes sell for a greater profit, which discourages the construction of smaller, entry-level homes.

While that is the case, developers have not built many homes at all in Crook County because of its unique set of economic circumstances that precludes construction of small and large homes alike.

“The wages aren’t high enough to qualify for $300,000 and $400,000 houses. That’s a reality,” Uffelman said. “One of the reasons we are not seeing much construction here is that there is not enough profit in building houses in Prineville and the contractor can build in Bend and Redmond just as easily.”

Unless the market changes, the only way that local leaders can think of to boost construction of affordable housing is to somehow provide incentives to entice developers to do so. However, many hurdles remain if local government were to take that route.

“You can’t compel somebody to build something they will lose money on unless local governments are willing to come in and subsidize that at some level, so that the private investors or the private builders have some sort of return on their investment,” said City Councilor Jason Carr. “Does that mean cities and counties are investing more in affordable housing developments? Is it incentives for builders? What does that look like?”

Uffelman raised his own questions, such as whether more multi-family dwellings would help, or perhaps a combination of commercial and residential, such as an apartment on the floor above a business.

“There are just a myriad of possibilities that need to be considered,” he added.

Then comes the matter of defining affordable housing in Crook County. Uffelman noted that in Bend, an affordable, entry-level home might cost at least $200,000, while in Prineville, it might cost closer to $130,000.

“There are a lot of people who don’t qualify for a $130,000 housing purchase,” he said. “Then you get into rentals. What is affordable rent? Is it $600 a month? Is it $400 a month? ... Some things have to be defined first.”

So far, no decisions have been made and the issue has only been mentioned briefly at government meetings or among poverty-related nonprofits. However, Carr believes that if the problem persists, it could force policy revisions or a change in the housing market.

“A lot of people are recognizing that the issue is there,” he said.

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