County and city leaders are working together to provide as much affordable housing locally as possible

CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Crook County Judge Seth CrawfordRecently, it's been hard to turn on the television or open a newspaper without seeing news about the housing shortage in Central Oregon.

Making sure that there is a decent inventory of housing in our area is a high priority for your county government. As we look at the Crook County housing market, the shortage we are experiencing today is the result of a variety of factors, within and outside of our control. 

One of the benefits of successfully diversifying our economy is the jobs we've added over the past several years. In March 2009, our county's unemployment rate was measured at 21.7 percent, while in October of this year it was measured at 5.9 percent. Those numbers are great news for our county, and good family-wage jobs have more people looking to buy a home of their own. Unfortunately, during the great recession, homes weren't being built, not just and Crook County, but around the state and nation.  The housing shortage in ?Deschutes? County, and the rapidly escalating prices there due to a lack of buildable land inventory, has resulted in an influx of folks who are able to buy a house in Crook County and willing to commute to Bend for work. This influx of commuters as well as the skilled workers who have come to our county to build our data centers has driven up the rents and prices of homes in our community. That's why we are looking to see how we can coordinate with Deschutes County to insure that they can get buildable lands into their urban growth boundary and alleviate some of the pressure on our own housing market. The housing shortage is not a one-dimensional problem. State land use laws, which create one set of rules for the state, were not designed to deal with rapid demand spikes in the market. A UGB expansion can take years, and there are limited tools that jurisdictions have to respond without increased flexibility from the state. A shortage of buildable land inventory, and the time and costs associated with bringing land into a UGB, can impact all market sectors. People find that it is easier to buy an existing house, to demolish or add a substantial addition to it, than to get the permitting for a house in a new area or subdivision. The result is fewer modest sized "starter homes" for newly married couples looking to raise a family. This is why the county has made adding homes of all sizes and across all prices a priority. When we look at housing affordability, making sure that existing stock that was built for working families is available for working families should be and is a priority. It is important to remember that in Crook County, the majority of our residential density is within the city of Prineville, but the majority of new housing stock will be built in areas of the county that can be annexed into Prineville. That's why city, county and regional coordination is so important to helping alleviate this problem. 

The City of Prineville has given direction to its staff to be as supportive as possible when receiving permit applications for projects that will add residential housing units. The city continues to maintain a land use code that is flexible enough to allow residential units in a wide variety of zones. As always, the city's public works department is staffed and ready to react quickly to infrastructure needs and plan reviews. In 2016, the city approved a temporary worker housing code for industrial zones, specifically to manage the influx of construction workers at the data centers. A 100-space RV park was approved under this code, and we are hopeful that this project will be able to proceed. This code has very specific criteria but could be an attractive option for a developer with the recent announcement of the additional building of data centers.

One of the best ways local governments can positively impact housing availability is by removing red tape and making it easier for people to build. The county building official and the director of community development have been working diligently to keep the turnaround time and the cost of residential permits at a minimum. At a time when there is a statewide building inspector shortage, we have worked hard to maintain a fully staffed team. The members of this team include permit techs and building inspectors who take pride in getting permits through quickly and keeping builders building.

This past summer, there were multiple days when our team performed more than 60 inspections in a day. It was a record-breaking amount of work, but our team rolled up their shirt sleeves and got it done. Next time you run into one of these hard-working folks, take a minute to thank them for their hard work. 

In 2014, the county joined the state's Oregon ePermitting System, which allows licensed contractors who are applying for a building permit to do so with a few clicks of a mouse instead of filling out forms in the office. This provides them with increased flexibility and efficiency to get permits and schedule appointments from any computer. 

The costs of permits and fees directly impacts the feasibility of building. This is why the county has refrained from assessing system development charges and works hard to keep building and planning fees at the minimum the county needs. We know that lower fees will result in more affordable housing for the end buyer, and getting our families into homes is a top priority. 

A new trend in homes are tiny homes. The tiny home can be a great options for folks just starting out, or senior citizens looking for small square footage on one level.

We learned that financing is a major problem for tiny homes. In many places, these houses are considered manufactured dwellings, which makes them very difficult and expensive to finance. Here in Crook County, your building department puts in the extra effort and inspects them throughout the building process, which allows them to be considered a stick-built home, and makes financing easier for the end buyer. It's one tool our county has to get people into homes that work for them.

Housing issues are not something that can be solved overnight, and we know at the county that careful coordination is necessary, locally, regionally, and at the state level to give us more tools to help alleviate the problems. We have also reached out to the homebuilders, realtors, building trades and other stakeholders to help inform us and guide our decision making. 

We'd like to hear your ideas as we navigate this issue. We know that this is an issue that impacts the ability for our community to live and raise families in Crook County.

Seth Crawford serves as Crook County Judge. He can be reached at 541-447-6555.

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