A new effort is in the works on the South Coast to coordinate housing efforts across the region.
Mike Lehman, who led Oregon Coast Community Action for seven years, has been tasked by local agencies to establish an advisory group to bring together local governments, nonprofits and businesses to respond to a lack of housing from Reedsport to Brookings.
“Our goal is to get a commission formed and parameters of how that works, and get people on that commission,” Lehman said.
The plan responds to a housing studies conducted in Coos and Curry counties around 2018.
One of the key takeaways from both studies: The region needs more housing, and the community needs to come together to make that happen.
Through a series of grants, NeighborWorks Umpqua is sponsoring the effort, with the help of Coos and Curry counties and the city of Reedsport. Together, Lehman said the region shares a lot of similar needs.
“The coast has some unique properties,” Lehman said.
Regionally the economy — and, by extension, the housing market — has struggled to recover from economic declines in the 1980s and the late 2000s.
More often than in other areas, Lehman said people across the region can only afford to grow old in their homes, meaning they keep living in the homes they raised their families in as they age instead of moving to a smaller place. That means their homes stay off the market for other families, and the aging owners have more difficulties taking keeping their homes in good condition.
“We’ve also lost a lot of our housing construction folks,” Lehman said, adding that coastal terrain and climate can make building more challenging, too.
Lehman, a former state representative who retired from ORCCA last year after leading the organization out of years of controversy, said his time with the nonprofit gave him experience with both sides of the region’s housing crisis.
On one hand, his organization worked to help people who couldn’t afford housing.
On the other hand, he’d often have qualified candidates for jobs at the nonprofit turn down offers because they couldn’t find affordable housing in the area.
“It cuts to the very core of the community,” Lehman said. “We can’t grow as a community when we can’t bring in folks to the community.”
In some ways, the problem is a double-edged sword: It can be hard to expand housing without economic development, but it can be hard to see economic development without adequate housing.
“It stymies both ends of the equation,” Lehman said.
A concerted effort to address the region’s shortage will speed up the process, Lehman and other local leaders hope.
Lehman’s been a part of the regional housing conversation for years, making it a topic he was excited to come out of retirement for.
“Part of it feels like I’m completing something,” Lehman said. “It felt like something I was completing, rather than something I’m starting over on.”
He’s looking to Tillamook County as a possible example of how the process could work: There, in 2019, county leaders set up a housing commission to examine that region’s housing crisis.
Since then, the Tillamook County group has met monthly, bringing nonprofit, government and business leaders together to collaborate on the topic, and has developed a lengthy to-do list of policy, outreach and financing projects.
Lehman said the South Coast commission won’t be actively building housing or directly financing projects, but will be advising local leaders on what policy steps they could take to attract housing developers.
“You try to streamline some of the building processes to make it easier for developers to come in and build,” Lehman said. “We have to make it attractive for contractors and developers to make it work.”
The effort’s in its earliest stages, but Lehman said some of those strategies could include incorporated cities promoting higher-density neighborhoods or promoting the construction of tiny homes on single-family lots.
“There’s no magic pill. It’s probably a variety of responses,” Lehman said.
His role with the commission will be limited: He’s planning to stick around only through the end of the year, which he hopes will be long enough to get the team up and running.
He’s got a goal to host a regional housing summit in the fall to bring housing leaders together to identify the region’s needs and discuss possible responses, he said.
“An opportunity for people to sit down and talk about opportunities and solutions. That gets everybody in the same room,” Lehman said.
Any details about how that event — and most details about how the commission will operate — are still up in the air, as Lehman began leading the effort just recently. But he’s hopeful that promoting the conversation will move the region forward in dealing with the crisis.
“It’s stunning to me that that’s a problem we have locally,” Lehman said.