By Boyd C. Allen

Pilot Staff Writer

Data in a recent study indicates Curry County could be headed for a spike in homelessness and a critical decline in its workforce.

The report, issued by real estate database company Zillow Group Dec. 11, relates spikes in homelessness to data points in income and housing costs.

Communities where people spend more than 32 percent of their income on rent can expect a more rapid increase in homelessness, according to the report.

Areas most vulnerable to raising rents and poverty, many on the West Coast, hold only 15 percent of the nation’s population, according to study, but hold 47 percent of the homeless.

The Curry County Housing Study and Action Plan — released this year by czb, an urban planning and community development firm — reports 90 percent of renter households in Curry County earning $35,000 or less are cost-burdened, meaning they are spending more than 30 percent of their gross income on rent. Nine out of 10 of these households are one car repair away from not being able to pay for their housing.

The median household income in Curry County is $38,661, with half of the county’s residents making more and half making less.

This data puts nearly half the county’s residents in danger of losing their housing, according to the Zillow report.

The county’s ALICE report — Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed — tracks residents who work and earn more than the federal poverty level but less than the basic cost of living in their home county.

According to Curry County ALICE data through 2016, 51 percent of local households live below the poverty level or ALICE threshold.

In other words, the income in these households fails to cover basic needs and allows no money for savings, emergencies or future plans.

This data reflects an ongoing trend in the county where the cost of rent and basic needs has outstripped income growth.

The Zillow report, authored by Chris Glynn and Alexander Casey, said areas where income growth did not keep pace with rent put people on the bottom rung of the economic ladder, like those living below the ALICE threshold, at increased risk of homelessness.

The Zillow authors note the “30 percent rule” is not just a real estate adage but a long-established rule that a person’s housing costs should not exceed 30 percent of their income. The new data shows exactly how housing insecurity and homelessness rapidly increase in communities where large numbers exceed that limit.

Locally, Oregon Coast Community Action (ORCCA) Development Director Sara Stephens said, “Our community’s most vulnerable people and families are significantly rent-burdened and it continues to only get worse.”

An article in the San Francisco Chronicle said when rent affordability surpasses the 32-percent threshold, homelessness will likely rise rapidly and added rent increases could lead to a “homelessness crisis, unless there are mitigating factors within a community.”

Curry County officials noted a rise in homelessness in 2018, and the Curry Homeless Coalition regularly receives referrals for people in a housing crisis from other agencies, according to Director Beth Barker-Hidalgo.

“We see this as a positive sign — more agencies are becoming aware of what we are offering the community,” she said, “but we can’t triage theses households alone. We are an all-volunteer, non-profit organization with limited funding and capacity to respond.”

Hidalgo said effectively addressing local homelessness would require involvement from others –– community organizations, transportation providers, non-profits, faith-based agencies, unhoused people and government agencies.

Cascading effects

In pricey coastal markets, like San Francisco and Seattle, “income growth has not kept pace with rents, leading to an affordability crunch with cascading effects,” the study authors write, including pushing high-income renters who typically rent more expensive apartments into lower-priced homes.

The Curry Housing Study reports a similar effect wherein amenity immigrants move here and purchase homes, often driving prices higher and decreasing the stock of housing for middle-income buyers and renters.

Amenity immigrants are people who move into an area for the services or natural benefits – such as Curry County’s weather, coastal beauty and rivers – often with the ability to purchase real estate. They are often retired and generally do not work.

According to the Zillow report, middle-income renters are pushed into even less expensive housing by these asset-rich residents, and the lowest earners “are forced to work multiple jobs, find multiple roommates and otherwise struggle to make ends meet.”

For the lowest earners, the risk of housing insecurity or homelessness rapidly increases.

Housing study data indicates many of these working people leave the area.

Workforce decline

Thomas Eddington of czb, presented data in the housing study depicting negative trends regarding the local workforce.

When workers cannot afford housing or pay more than one-third of their income for housing, the report reads, the economy risks losing workers, wages and the ability to provide services. Eventually, this trend could stop people from moving here — our current economic driver — and the economy could collapse.

The report shows the percentage of residents in the workforce declined by 7 percent from 2000 to 2016; only 44.3 percent of residents over the age of 16 are in the labor force, lower than in 2000. This is the worst workforce participation rate in Oregon, according to the housing study.

czb reported the poverty rate rose from 12 percent to 15 percent over the same period and the county’s workforce population – people from 25 to 54 who are likely to work – declined from 35 to 29 percent.

Eddington said it was the largest and fastest workforce decline he had seen and portends economic problems because workers drive the economy.

Workforce problems are exacerbated, according to the study, because fewer than 15 percent of Curry County’ young workers 25 to 35 years old hold at least a bachelor’s degree.

Eddington said this indicates educated young people leave the area and take with them the abilities that drive a knowledge-based economy. The service jobs that remain reap the lowest pay.

The report states 40 percent of Curry’s workforce is in the retail, trade, accommodations and food services sectors, compared to 25 percent for Oregon. These workers earn $10 per hour, or $21,000 per year on average – one dollar an hour below the ALICE threshold.

The studies show resident incomes are not keeping up with housing costs, more residents are living in poverty and fewer people in the county are working. Those who are working but who cannot afford housing are grouping in available housing, leaving the area or becoming homeless.

The Zillow report adds to local concerns –– if changes in housing or increases in mitigating circumstances are not made, the county will not only continue losing workers, especially educated workers, but also face a spike in homelessness negatively impacting home prices and the desirability of the area. These circumstances would also overtax services such as police and health care providers.

The ALICE report, the Curry County Housing Study and Action Plan and the Zillow report all point to an upcoming crisis in homelessness and workforce retention.

Solutions

The Housing Task Force, a group of concerned citizens, volunteers, housing advocates, coordinated care providers and community leaders will meet 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Jan. 25, at the Curry County Library.

The task force focuses on acting on recommendations in the Curry County Housing Study and Action Plan — the group originally formed to promote and fund the study. It also attempts to gather input and resources from other agencies and employers to help address the shortage in affordable housing.

The housing study proposes multiple steps to address the problem, including creating a county-level housing trust fund (HTF) or local HTFs to bridge the $96,000 gap between the cost to build a home in the county and the price a worker can pay, making a financial commitment to community housing infrastructure and updating governmental toolkits to encourage workforce housing.

Gold Beach City Council

Gold Beach recently began advertising changes in zoning rules that allow more tiny homes and accessory dwelling units (ADUs) within the city. The city is advertising the concept with money from AllCare.

At the Gold Beach Housing Forum Oct. 18, Councilor Tamie Kaufman said the city was “ahead of the game” on housing having allowed tiny-homes and ADUs since 2016.

She defined a tiny-home as being between 200 and 600 square feet, and said Gold Beach prohibits them being used as vacation houses or rentals.

Councilor Becky Campbell said vacation rentals were depleting the city’s housing stock and added the council would explore ways to limit their effect.

She said she would also like to work through the city’s Urban Renewal Committee to plan a public-private partnership to build affordable housing in town.

“I agree that affordable housing is necessary and lacking in the county, Campbell said. “. . . I would like to require a portion of any future apartments, condominiums or townhouses built within the city to include a Section 8 component in their plans.”

Section 8 is the federal government’s program for assisting very low-income families, the elderly and disabled so they can afford decent, safe and sanitary housing in the private market. The largest part of the section is the Housing Choice Voucher program which pays a large portion of the rents and utilities for about 2.1 million households.

Crisis housing

For those already homeless, Hidalgo proposes “low-barrier, integrated transitional housing programs” to provide safety, stress reduction, improved overall health and the time and support to develop a sustainable plan to improve people’s situations.

She said she realized the county has no money to offer, and suggested it explore a variety of uses of county-owned property, support resolutions brought forth by organizations taking steps to serve the population in need, explore effective, humane ordinances or act as a pass-through agency for federal, state and philanthropic funds.

Father Bernie Lindley of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Brookings said it is best to address the homeless situation with solutions that are good for a municipality’s appearance, its ability to attract and sustain businesses and protect residents and the homeless.

“I would like to see the city of Brookings either obtain, or make available from currently city-owned property, an acre of land that can be made into a homeless shelter,” he said. “This land could provide several different types of safe places to sleep.”

Some of the land could hold a tent city, according to Lindley, and some small structures for individuals. Other areas could house a central space for meal preparation and laundry, as well as more permanent group homes.

CCOs, health

According to AllCare Community Advisory Council Chair Georgia Nowlin, AllCare has been at the forefront of Oregon’s Coordinated Care Organizations (CCOs) in addressing the social determinants of health in Curry County. The social determinants of health are the social, economic, political and environmental conditions in which people are born, work, live and age, factors outside of a doctor’s office.

The lack of housing, or homelessness is a social determinant of health, a factor AllCare recognized early on when they gave $100,000 to Curry County as seed money a few years ago to address the issue of housing.

Some of that money was used to help fund the Curry County Housing Study and Action Plan.

AllCare will be a community partner in addressing these issues, she added, and Advanced Health will likely do so as well.

Advanced Health Director Ben Messner was not available for comment.

Curry government

In a move dictated by the state but locally planned and encouraged, the Curry County Board of Commissioners approved amendments to the county zoning ordinances Aug. 15 allowing ADUs in areas of the county.

The board voted to change the status of ADUs from requiring a conditional use permit to “allowed outright.” This means residents adding an ADU will only need a building permit.

An increase in ADUs throughout the county should increase the number of lower-priced rental units and affordable units for purchase.

Reach Boyd C. Allen at ballen@currypilot.com

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