Clatsop County should do more to support diverse housing at higher densities and control vacation rentals to address an affordable housing shortage.
The recommendations are the product of a nearly yearlong, countywide study that was commissioned by the county and five cities.
On Wednesday, Johnson Economics and Angelo Planning Group presented a draft of the final report to the county Board of Commissioners, which outlined several suggestions on how local governments could adapt codes, zoning requirements and other regulations to encourage affordable housing.
The good news is, on a countywide basis, there seems to be enough buildable residential land and existing housing to meet the needs of residents.
In fact, there are about 1 1/2 houses for each household.
“If the housing is technically here, what is the housing being used for to where people feel like there is a housing crunch in the county?” said Brendan Buckley, a project manager for Johnson Economics.
It’s because the housing supply is not being used to serve the needs of residents, according to the report.
One of the unique issues, Buckley said, is how little physical space there is for some communities to expand.
More than 11,800 acres of potentially buildable land exist, with most of it clustered in the northern part of the county. But significant constraints exist within Astoria, which has a lot of federally owned land within the urban growth boundary that can’t technically be developed, and Warrenton, which has wetlands that could drive up the cost of construction.
“It’s fairly unique to see that,” he said. “Most communities across the state have some way to grow ... What does it mean to grow when you really can’t grow out?”
Although there is plenty of unincorporated land, these areas have limited commercial services, as well as an unknown capacity for water and sewer. Population projections also show that unincorporated areas will actually see a decrease, while the rest of the county will see a modest increase.
“Certainly market forces are going to push development of housing in unincorporated areas, but we would say is (governments) need to think about the ability to accommodate that,” Buckley said.
So what can be done? Use residential land as efficiently as possible to offer different types of housing that are affordable to more people, the report suggests.
Many of the solutions offered in the report center around adjusting zoning requirements or updating development codes to encourage more density in zones that already allow for it.
Every area, with the exception of Seaside, which is the only city projected to not have enough land to serve its population growth, has land zoned medium and high density that is available for development.
The problem is much of this land is allowed to be developed with single-family homes.
Some of the suggestions include updating codes to not allow new single-family homes — the most prolific type of housing in the county — in high-density zones. Instead, cities should encourage more multiunit dwellings like duplexes, triplexes and groups of small, detached homes called “cottage clusters.”
This type of housing can be less expensive to build and can serve first-time and lower-income buyers.
“While having a mix of housing types in these zones is not in and of itself a bad thing, it is important to preserve an adequate supply of land designated for medium and high density for higher-density housing forms — townhouses, triplexes, fourplexes and multifamily dwellings,” the report said.
While the majority of the county allows alternative forms of housing like duplexes or accessory dwelling units — which are separate structures that can be rented out on the same lot as a single-family home — governments often require conditional use permits.
Eliminating that barrier could make it easier for a developer to create housing options, according to the report. An example would be making it an outright use to create housing in commercial zones, rather than something that requires an extensive review process.
“A lot of those (housing options) are allowed, but there is more work to be done ... to make them more feasible in certain areas,” Buckley said.
The study also emphasized the importance of establishing minimum density standards — especially for land-strapped communities like Seaside and Cannon Beach, where filling in existing residential neighborhoods will be especially critical.
So far, the only place in the county that requires a certain number of units is Mill Pond in Astoria.
Another significant part of the problem is how housing is used. Twenty-seven percent of homes in the county are vacant. In South County, the construction of second homes outpaced those for long-term residents.
Vacation rentals and second homes are consuming a substantial share of the housing stock, which in turn affects the costs of both long-term rentals and home sales, according to the report.
“We don’t want to imply that it’s all negative,” Buckley said. “But what we’ve talked about is the fact that short-term rental activity at its heart ... that’s a commercial activity. And if that’s happening in your residential zones, that’s like allowing a hotel in your residential zone.”
The report suggests solutions that many communities have already adopted, like capping rentals and restricting them to certain areas or zones.
Getting housing projects rolling might be difficult without some resources for local governments.
“You cannot build affordable housing for 80% of (the area medium income) and below without some kind of public subsidy,” said Matt Hastie, a project manager with Angelo Planning Group.
The report suggested using an urban renewal fund, a construction excise tax and passing a countywide bond to have a steady stream of money that would fund projects or subsidize rents.
Over the next few months, the consultants will make presentations to each of the cities and work to develop a summarized document with specific advice and guidance.
While the county and each city has its own unique challenges, working as a region and having regulatory consistency and efficiency is a critical part in driving change, Hastie said.
“In few industries is the old adage that ‘time is money’ more true than the development industry,” the report stated.