Our Opinion: A community, if we can afford it
Should local officials make it easier for developers to build low-income housing here in South Columbia County?
Let's look at the numbers.
The median household income in Columbia County was estimated at $62,257, as of 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That doesn't account for the impact of COVID-19 on the economy, of course. That estimate comes in at almost exactly $20,000 lower than the median household in Washington County to the south.
Columbia County workers have a longer average commute than those who live in neighboring Washington and Multnomah counties. As of 2018, according to the Census Bureau, nearly three-quarters of all workers who live in Columbia County were going to work outside the county.
And as of 2019, the Census Bureau estimated that three-quarters of Columbia County's housing units — a category that encompasses single-family houses, duplex and triplex units, apartments, mobile homes and more — were owner-occupied.
Fortunately, rent and mortgage costs remain lower in Columbia County than in Washington and Multnomah counties, going off the Census Bureau's data. It's cheaper to live in Columbia County and commute to a job in Washington County, for instance, than to live in Washington County, even if Washington County is where the jobs are.
But there's a catch.
This economic data is countywide, meaning it includes cities like Clatskanie and Rainier, as well as rural areas like Apiary and Mist. And when you look at the data for, say, Scappoose, it looks a lot closer to the rest of the Portland area.
Scappoose is the closest city in Columbia County to Portland, and it's economically more oriented toward the metropolitan area than the rest of the county.
In Scappoose, the median gross rent for 2015 to 2019 was $1,250, more than $300 higher than the county's $921 — and much more in line with the going rates in Washington and Multnomah counties. Nearly one-third of housing units are rentals.
In Scappoose, nearly four-fifths of workers were employed in another county, with more than half working in Washington County or Multnomah County, as of 2018.
And in Scappoose, median household income is dramatically higher than the countywide average, coming in at $80,171 — just about $2,000 short of the number in Washington County, as opposed to $20,000.
It's more expensive to live in Scappoose. Scappoose residents, on average, make significantly more money than others in Columbia County. These things go hand in hand.
So it's difficult to understand why the Scappoose School District would choose not to sign onto a property tax exemption for nonprofit affordable housing developments, with one School Board member arguing that encouraging the construction of "low-income housing projects," as she put it, would detract from Scappoose's rural character.
By discouraging affordable housing, Scappoose would stay on track to become one of the well-to-do white-collar Portland suburbs many Columbia County residents profess to disdain. As the cost of living rises, some Scappoose residents will be squeezed out, forced to relocate — quite possibly to a more rural area, in fact — because they can no longer afford to live in this community. Some who would move to Scappoose, preferring a more rural setting to the hustle and bustle of city life or the suburban sprawl, will be turned off by its higher housing costs and look elsewhere instead.
In truth, Section 8 housing won't solve this quandary by itself. But it could be the catalyst for more housing development that will make Scappoose an affordable and accessible place for people of all income levels.
What some urbanists call "missing middle" housing and so-called affordable housing, which often refers to housing developments that are subsidized or tax-exempt on the condition that they keep rents artificially low, actually go hand in hand.
Housing targeted specifically toward low-income individuals and families gives them a place to live they might not otherwise have. Studies have shown that stable housing is a major, major factor in determining whether a low-income earner can keep a job or find a better one, and it's crucial for school families as well — something School Board members in Scappoose ought to keep in mind.
As a household in a cost-controlled apartment gains more income, eventually, it will seek new accommodations and make way for others who can't afford market-rate housing.
That's where the missing middle comes in — duplex and triplex units, for instance, and townhomes and condominiums, among others. This type of housing isn't subsidized, rent isn't capped at a certain level and residents aren't income-restricted. But it's less expensive than the house with a white picket fence, as they say, and provides a good "middle" option. If it's built in the same community as the affordable housing complexes, that means families can stay in the same school district — continuity that can also be important in a child's education — even as they lift themselves out of poverty.
It's short-sighted to think of these supposed "projects" as a Portland-style blight on the town. Many of these housing developments blend seamlessly into the residential landscape, for one. For another, they provide a crucial first step on the ladder toward another type of housing that Scappoose and other cities should be encouraging: homes geared toward young professionals, retirees and others who can't afford their own detached single-family house but want to build equity instead of paying rent.
And it's time to change the way we think about Scappoose and "Portland creep." The local economy here is already tied to Portland, and that's probably not going to change anytime soon. But the decisions made at the local level can decide whether Scappoose is a place for people of all ages and income levels to live and work, or whether it will be an exclusive bedroom community for high-salaried Intel and Nike employees, where longtime residents, older adults and lower-wage earners one day might find they can no longer afford to live.
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