As much as we all wanted 2021 to look better than 2020, the resurgence of COVID-19 and the Delta variant has hit Oregon once again. It has not required entire sectors of our economy to be shut down, but our local hospital now has National Guard soldiers doing the work that hospital staffers might otherwise do.
How did we get here, and what is there to be done about it? That is, of course, the billion-dollar question. While it's not exactly an answer, one thing is sure: Everything is connected, and this current situation is laying that fact bare. Some of the biggest topics of conversation in Central Oregon include population growth, housing, tourism... and now, COVID-19. The situation we find ourselves in currently shows how interconnected these things really are.
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Earlier this month, the U.S. Census Bureau released data that showed Deschutes County was the fastest-growing county in the state, adding 40,520 more people from 2010 to 2020—not shocking news to any local. But how that affects both our housing situation and the current situation at St. Charles Health System should concern all of us. Explosive growth means the systems we rely on to keep us safe are bound to be strained.
St. Charles, the county's largest employer, states it is having trouble filling open positions for jobs like nurses. According to St. Charles, prospective employees are scared away by the availability of housing in the area, and the current prices. As of July, Bend's home value index was $114,408 more than the home value index in Portland, according to Zillow. In 2015, Bend's home value index was $10,000 less than Portland's. When prospective employees see figures like that, is it any wonder that they balk at taking a job here?
Meanwhile, the League of Women Voters of Deschutes County conducted an affordable housing study from 2019 to 2021 that highlighted, among other details, how the advent of short-term rentals is further exacerbating our already strained housing supply.
"There has been a loss over the past 10 years of approximately 1,000 residential units within the City of Bend, transforming houses from residential use to tourist lodging, resulting in a loss of approximately 1 out of 35 to 40 residential housing units," the study noted, and advocated for protecting the loss of existing housing supply through more regulation and enforcement. The study also advocated for discouraging the loss of affordable housing to real estate speculation and gentrification.
While banning new short-term rentals or adding a tax on unoccupied homes could be drops in the proverbial bucket, when we have arrived at the place where our local health system is unable to adequately care for the people in the community due to the housing market, isn't it time for us to employ every tool in the toolbox to correct the problem? According to an analysis from AirDNA, Bend had the fourth-highest number of Airbnb listings per capita in the nation in 2019—and this affects housing needs across the spectrum.
As one member of the LWVDC told the Source, "The unfortunate irony is the City of Bend has allowed over a thousand homes to be converted to micro tourist hotels, and now is paying millions to convert a hotel into a homeless shelter."
Economists have been predicting this crisis in our housing market for years. It should come as no surprise that now, when we need health care workers the most, those predictions are coming to bear.
Right now, city leaders in Bend are working through a set of new housing codes to put the city in line with the tenets of House Bill 2001, which prohibits single-family zoning in the state. Those code changes will touch on how many new short-term rentals can be added to new housing projects. At the current moment, it is time to take it to zero. Current iterations of the code allow one per multi-family housing unit. Code changes will help build more units in the area and banning new short-term rental permits will begin to open up the housing we already have.
A housing crisis affects the entire community. It's become clear that essential services are interconnected and without affordable housing we will not get the help we need when we need it most.