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Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici speaks with officials about housing needs in Columbia County

PMG PHOTO: NICOLE THILL-PACHECO - U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, a Democrat, met with Columbia County leaders on Monday, May 6, to discuss the complexities of affordable housing and to get a perspective on local needs. The congresswoman also hosted numerous meetings with other leaders in Oregons First Congressional District to get an idea of challenges and possible solutions. Finding solutions to address affordable housing — not only in Columbia County but across the state and country — is complex and multifaceted.

That was the major outcome from a discussion between Democratic U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici and a group of community leaders who met Monday, May 6, in St. Helens to discuss the intricacies, challenges and possible innovative solutions to the affordable housing crisis.

During the hour-long roundtable discussion, representatives from Community Action Team, the Columbia Pacific Food Bank, the city of St. Helens, the Columbia County Board of Commissioners, SAFE of Columbia County and other organizations, met with the congresswoman.

Bonamici has hosted several similar meetings in cities throughout Oregon's First Congressional District to get a sense of need in the district she represents.

Another takeaway has been that wages have not kept up with the cost of living, making it difficult to afford housing, Bonamici explained.

"What I've discovered, especially in rural communities, like some places in Columbia County, if you're making minimum wage you have to work like 80 hours a week to be able to afford a one-bedroom apartment, and if you want to buy, the costs are very prohibitive," Bonamici said.

For comparison, to adequately meet housing costs, she explained, you would need to make $42,000 a year. To afford a family home with three bedrooms, you would need to make $75,000 a year.

During the discussion Monday, Dan Brown, executive director of CAT, touched on the significant need for affordable housing in Columbia County. According to a 2017 housing study by CAT, the county has a deficit of 1,900 units of affordable housing.

While CAT is currently embarking on an affordable housing project of its own — a 16-unit facility that will be located directly behind the CAT building which will service CAT clients who qualify — it's a drop in the bucket when it comes to meeting need, Brown explained.

With rising construction costs, CAT faces the additional challenge of needing to charge nearly $960 a month for a 350-square-foot apartment just to offset the cost of building the unit, even after grant funding, fee waivers and other funding from the state and local level, Brown explained.

"When I think of the 1,900 units that we're missing and we're putting 16 units on the ground with that much effort and that much assistance from government and both local and state ... it's very telling," Brown said.

While some of those costs will be reimbursed, Brown's statement illustrates the high cost to build housing to address the lack of inventory.

"But again, that's only really partially the point. The fact that we can do it is one thing, the fact that it's almost impossible for it to happen in the private sector is compounding the problem," he added.

Another discussion topic was the development of the Oregon Manufacturing Innovation Center in Scappoose, and how an influx of available employment and training opportunities will impact the need for traditional housing, as well as short-term rentals for research teams that may only need to be in the area for a couple months at a time.

"If it's as successful as we all hope it's going to be, you'll be seeing industrial jobs present in this area, but it's going to put additional strains on housing needs in this area because you're not only taking care of your indigenous population, you're now keeping your indigenous population here, and you're attracting new people to the region," Craig Campbell, executive director for OMIC, explained.

While OMIC is primarily focused on metals manufacturing, Campbell surmised it would be possible to expand construction training into the program if that training was identified as a barrier to the ability to build affordable housing.

Casey Wheeler, executive director of the Columbia Pacific Food Bank and mayor of Columbia City, also noted the impact of affordable housing he has seen on seniors. More and more seniors are living in shared living arrangements with four to six people in a home just to keep the cost of living affordable, he noted.

In other cases, different county agencies have attracted high-level talent to fill upper management and leadership positions to out-of-state candidates, only for them to turn down the jobs offered because they couldn't find housing to fit their needs. Columbia County recently lost a finance director who had moved from Washington and was living in her travel trailer for several months trying to find housing. Ultimately, she quit because she was unable to find anything, Columbia County Commissioner Henry Heimuller mentioned.

The anecdotal instances help highlight the problems people are facing when it comes to housing and the impacts those problems have on community, Bonamici explained.

"Number one, families are struggling and having a hard time, and number two, communities are losing talent because they can't find affordable housing," Bonamici said following the meeting.

Other housing challenges also center on making sure existing homes are maintained properly, Brown said.

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