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Economic Priority

City council hears detailed appeal on affordable housing

The chronic issue of affordable housing received a thorough airing Monday at City Council, and a sense of progress was evident to the council and those who presented on the issue.

Dealing with the affordable housing issue was deemed a top priority by the council in December 2014, and Monday was the councilors’ chance to hear a wide range of views on the topic from seven separate speakers, including County Commissioner Maui Meyer and Joel Madsen, executive director of Mid-Columbia Housing Authority.

Meyer noted that a two-year study by the regional Gorge Housing Affordability group revealed that 45 percent of workers in Hood River County had to drive 15 minutes or more to get to work. He said the basic goal of addressing affordable housing is, “if you work in this community you ought to be able to live in this community.”

“The goal of living where you work is clearly not happening here,” remarked Steve Wheeler, city manager.

“I ask that the council look for ideas on affordable housing so we can get more people in these communities living in safe, decent, affordable housing,” said Jim Slusher, director of the Mid-Columbia Community Action Council, which serves low-income and homeless residents with heating and housing assistance.

A total of $2.5 million in state funds are poised to be spent in Hood River, Wasco and Sherman counties on projects that create housing for low- to medium-income workers. The city or some other local jurisdiction must agree to serve as lead agency to administer the funds.

“Housing is an economic priority to all three counties,” Amanda Hooey, director of Mid-Columbia Economic Development District, told the council.

The city has hired consultant Eco Northwest to conduct a housing needs assessment, to be managed by Hood River resident Scott Keillor, and the city is embarking on a “buildable lands inventory” study. All this will create a basic set of information to help the city make policy decisions, along with other agencies, to improve the affordable housing picture, according to planning director Cindy Walbridge. She has convened a community-based technical committee to begin looking at specific measures involving zoning, fees, and changes in ordnances. Options also include changes to ordinances governing vacation rentals, which affect long-term rental availability and are believed to drive up rental rates.

Meanwhile, Wheeler said he has reached out to 30 building contractors in the area for their perspectives on how the public and private sectors can work together to create more affordable housing. Local builders Doug Beveridge and Mike Kitts appeared Monday, and asked for time before council next month to present their ideas.

“It finally feels like we’re getting somewhere on this,” councilor Kate McBride said.

See Jan. 31 edition for details on the housing presentation.

The information-filled meeting was also the first time the full council had met in public session since the election that brought in Peter Cornelison, Becky Brun, and Susan Johnson, along with new mayor Paul Blackburn.

“It’s great to be at full power,” Blackburn said. “Last meeting only four of us were able to meet.”

Each council meeting, “council call” comes at the end of the agenda, giving councilors and mayor the chance to talk about whatever they want.

Returning member Laurent Picard, who had missed the previous meeting, limited his remarks to welcoming the newcomers. “It’s good to be with you all, and I welcome those of you who are new. I’m really looking forward to working with you,” he said. Brun used her time to clarify her committee positions – she’ll share Visitor Council with Blackburn – and Johnson noted it was her first meeting and had nothing to report.

Cornelison used his time to make a three-part request for the council to take steps as a group and as individuals on the subject of global warming: joining the group Safe Energy Leadership Alliance, passing a council resolution asking for carbon tax or cap-and-trade legislation, and to consider joining the advocacy group Climate Communications, which focuses on enacting federal funding on energy and climate issues.

“I also want the city to realize what its carbon footprint is – and know how to deal with it,” Cornelison said. “I would also like to find out what other cities are doing, perhaps via a group such as Climate Change Action Network” (CCAN, formed last year in Hood River).

Blackburn said he welcomes such information, if it came with the assistance of an outside organization, rather than devoting staff time.

Blackburn, who served on council from 2004-08, said, “I want each of us to have agenda items that are important to us, things that you want to get talked about — and work with Steve Wheeler on ways to get those discussed. It’s about agenda access. I want to make sure you all feel you have access to the agenda.”

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