A recent study found that Coos Bay is expected to grow by more than 1,300 residents over the next two years. The study also highlighted that while all forms of housing are needed, the greatest need is for more affordable homes and rentals. Drew Farmer is a member of Coos Bay City Council. He joins us to share what housing currently looks like in the city and what the city is doing to address its housing needs.
The following transcript was created by a compuer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We’re coming to you today, and all this week, from Coos Bay. We’re broadcasting from Marshfield High School, which is perched on a hill overlooking first the pioneer cemetery, and then if you look a little bit further, the bay is in the distance. We have come here to talk about some of the issues affecting the city, and this region, which is known as Oregon’s Bay Area. Many of the most urgent issues will sound familiar to Oregonians around the state, including housing and homelessness, addiction, and mental health care. We’re gonna kick off this week’s coverage right now with Drew Farmer, he is a member of the Coos Bay City Council, and executive director of the Oregon Coast Community Action. Drew Farmer, thanks very much for joining us.
Drew Farmer: Thank you for inviting me.
Miller: You lived for a time just a few blocks from here growing up. Eventually you went to neighboring North Bend High School. We were talking a little bit before we went live. I was talking with the principal of Marshfield High School an hour ago who said that, at its peak, there were 2,200-2,300 students at this high school, and now there are 800, the loss of timber jobs being a huge component of that. How different is this region right now from what you remember growing up, or perhaps the stories you heard from your parents or your grandparents?
Farmer: Yeah. I’ve had family out towards Lakeside since 52, and my uncle was a trucker, still is, as I grew up. So I got to see first hand a little later down the road what the impact of the spotted owl issue was in the area. It was really the impetus for the downfall of the timber industry. That occurred in the early 80s. Then following on that, what the impact was countywide in terms of the funds, the tax revenue, and where some of the promises that were associated with the protection of lands under the spotted owl were not honored by the federal government. And that definitely cut into funds.
Miller: You eventually went to the Navy, and then went to Portland State University for a time before coming back here. What brought you back?
Farmer: This is home. I came back to home.
Miller: What do you mean when you say that?
Farmer: This is where I’m from. I tell people San Diego was nice and sunny, but it was too hot, and Portland’s not here. So I tell people I like my swamp, so I came back to it.
Miller: What is the overall plan, if there is one, to replace the jobs and the people that you were talking about? I mean, it doesn’t seem that those timber jobs are coming back here. So what is the civic plan to come up with a new version of industry here?
Farmer: I would have to say in terms of replacing the jobs, that already failed. I mean that was 40 years ago that those jobs started to dwindle. So now we’re looking at how to build something new, essentially. And one of the things I’m looking forward to is the deepening and widening of the bay, and seeing the shipping channel start to open back up to international shipping as a logistical hub. That was one aspect of the area that never really got lost. The trucking industry declined, but because there was already such a robust industry here around that, some companies were able to adapt and overcome. It just wasn’t as big as it was when the timber industry was included.
Miller: We are going to be talking later this week with a representative from the port about the dreams for what could come to the port here.
What about tourism? It’s worth noting that you could say we’re on the coast here, and Portlanders might think of as being on the coast, but we’re not actually, this is not a place where people are gonna come directly if they want to go to the beach. They can go to Bandon or other places where there’s actually sand and the Pacific Ocean. But I say that because tourism is often seen in a lot of parts of Oregon as a kind of potential savior. How much could tourism bring to Coos Bay and North Bend?
Farmer: You know, tourism brings a fair amount of money right now. The problem with tourism is it’s not middle class jobs, generally. You’ll get some people that are running a business, but you’ll get a lot of people that are just working on the front line of the business, it doesn’t pay enough, and it definitely doesn’t pay like timber or shipping jobs do. If we look at other cities, maybe an example would be when you look at Lincoln City, they have a huge tourism aspect, but they also have people living in RVs for two years trying to find housing because they can’t afford it.
Miller: In other words, even if tourism could be a bigger deal here, you’re still wary of it from a city council perspective because of the economic realities of what it would mean in terms of jobs?
Farmer: Yeah, I wouldn’t bank on it to save the region.
Miller: And shipping has a better chance of doing so?
Farmer: It definitely pays better. You get into the shipping jobs, and you’ve actually got wages with which somebody can- that’s one of the interesting aspects here locally, is when you look at what’s considered middle class in an urban neighborhood or in an urban area like Portland, you’re looking at people with fairly moderate to high end office jobs. Out here, middle class is your truckers and your shippers. It’s not the same as what they look at in a city.
Miller: But having said that, is the salary that you could expect driving a truck or working at the port, is that enough right now to be able to either rent or buy an average sized home?
Farmer: If you’re looking at trucking, I used to work on the administrative side of a trucking company, a good driver could make up to $70,000. A decent driver would be in the 50-60 range.
Miller: And 70,000 is enough to actually live here?
Farmer: Yeah, it’s enough to live here. But you’re right on the housing and cost aspect. I bought my house seven years ago for about $150,000, and within three years, Zillow said it was $300,000 or something like that.
Miller: I saw a sign yesterday touring around for a four bedroom house in North Bend for $450,000.
Farmer: Yeah, and that’s probably a steal.
Miller: So let’s turn to housing. This is an issue all over Oregon. And in a lot of coastal communities, it’s pretty acute. There’ve been a couple studies of housing needs here in recent years. What have they found, and what most stands out to you?
Farmer: One of the things that’s most interesting, and I’ve actually had this debate with some folks at the state, is our housing study will come out that we’re by and large missing the middle block. That is an issue when you look at the pressures on the market. So if somebody has the means to afford a middle income house, and they’re renting a lower market value house, then you’ve lost housing for the lower affordability area.
Miller: In other words, the person who actually could afford a house that’s a little bit bigger, perhaps cost a little bit more, but that doesn’t exist, they’re they’re spending money to rent or to buy a smaller home, which is fine for them, even if they want something bigger, but it means somebody who has less money has no place to live?
Farmer: Yeah. And the results of the housing study are interesting in themselves, at least for Coos Bay. When we look at the results of it, you boil down the numbers and it comes out that the metrics they used to say we need about 527 houses, but their study says we need 604. So when you pull the numbers and working backwards, you end up showing that we are missing 77 houses right now.
Miller: One thing that confused me a little bit, going back to those high school enrollment numbers that I mentioned, that say in the eighties or maybe early nineties, there could have been 2,200 students here, now there are 800. Given that that’s the case, I’m wondering why there is any shortage of housing in this city at all? What am I missing?
Farmer: Aging population. When we ran a recent community needs assessment for ORCCA, the largest responding group was between 35 and 55. And I believe the median age for Coos County is 45. So the population itself is aging, and the youth aren’t returning.
Miller: So there are fewer young people and more old people.
Farmer: Yeah. Actually, when I graduated North Bend in 04, they had 800 students. So to hear Marshfield’s down to 800, I can’t imagine what North Bend must look like.
Miller: Because at that point, and always, Marshfield was the bigger school?
Farmer: It always has been.
Miller: So what can the city do, or the county, to close that gap you’re talking about, and to provide more missing middle housing? That’s this phrase that has become pretty popular in housing wonky circles in the last couple of years.
Farmer: Yeah, they change terms all over. Low income turns into “workforce.” One of the early things our council did, and it was in collaboration with our homelessness work group, was to look at ordinances to bring houses back on the market. Because one of the other issues after the recession, our area recovers more slowly from that sort of thing because it’s basically been in recession since the 90s. A lot of houses had gone into foreclosure. They were owned by banks that probably weren’t even aware they owned the houses. So we passed a combination of two ordinances, one that required an owner more than 50 miles away to have somebody check on the property monthly, and that they maintain that property. And the second ordinance was if they don’t maintain it, we will do it for them, send them the bill, and if they don’t pay their bill after a certain amount of time, we move to first place to basically receive the house.
Miller: Have those two ordinances put together actually led to more units on the market here?
Farmer: Oh yeah. Yep. We were still talking about it when we started to get contact from banks starting to put properties up for sale. I don’t even know how they heard about it.
Miller: Because they felt the pressure?
Farmer: Yeah. And they didn’t want the liability. An individual owner, it’s not so hard for them to have somebody check on their house. But some bank on the east coast barely knows they own the house, they just want to offload the liability.
Miller: Did these houses still have pipes? Did they still have stuff that hadn’t been taken away by metal seekers?
Farmer: Oh yeah, that’s definitely an issue at some of the properties. But less so than I’ve expected to hear about. I actually didn’t hear about any of that during that process. But I’ve definitely seen apartments where it happened.
Miller: After a change in state law a couple years ago, the construction of duplexes and triplexes and larger housing forms, it can’t be prevented in all but the smallest Oregon cities. And Coos Bay is not a small city. But as we talked about many times on the show, saying you can build something is not the same as actually having that thing happen. The market has to say we want to do this, it pencils out. Have you seen cottage clusters or quadplexes or larger multi-family homes being built?
Farmer: You know, I sat on the advisory rulemaking committee for House Bill 2001, 2003, and those are the bills you’re referencing. And yeah, cities over 10,000 started to have restrictions or requirements around them.
I don’t know how much that itself has caused development. Some of the recommendations in that, one of them was to remove system development charges, Coos Bay doesn’t have any, it never helped.
Miller: This is money that the developer would have to pay so that a sewer would actually basically be put in for example, or other things?
Farmer: Exactly. But what has helped is when the city will put out an RFP for a piece of surplus property we have, well now somebody’s interested. And then some development happens, and in one part of Empire, that development happened. And then across the street we saw somebody else put in some real homes. So the town home system, that we actually have seen progress with.
Miller: Another issue that’s been contentious up and down the coast is short term rentals. Can you describe the ordinance that the city council did pass in January?
Farmer: So that was one I opposed. There were two of us out of seven that opposed it, and as my memory goes, it restricted the short term rentals to residential zones, and maybe mixed residential/commercial. And it upped the allowance from 45 units to 75 units, which if we circle back on my numbers earlier, if we’re missing 77 units immediately, that basically doubles the problem.
Miller: So that was your argument that they didn’t win the day against increasing the number of homes that could be used exclusively for tourism, for short term rentals. Have those actually been turning into AirBnBs or Vrbos? Have your fears come to pass?
Farmer: Well, we were maxed out at the 45. So that ran right up. I don’t recall where we’re at on the 75. One of my big concerns as well was, again, when we look at Lincoln City, about a third of their housing stock has turned into short term rentals. So if we don’t have room to house our own citizens here permanently living here, it doesn’t make sense to me to push this.
Miller: We’ve been talking about some of the challenges facing your home. What is your most hopeful vision for the future of Coos Bay?
Farmer: I really want to see that expansion of the port system go through, and I want to see some of the people that own large sections of land actually put them up for development. We’ve got hundreds of acres in Coos Bay that are owned by either public entities that haven’t done anything with them, or private landowners that just aren’t doing anything with them. They hold it as investment property.
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