Availability not keeping up with valley’s demands

Photo by Ann McCreary Elana Mainer, executive director of Room One, takes notes for her table as participants in a community meeting  discuss challenges of affordable housing in the Methow Valley.

Photo by Ann McCreary

Elana Mainer, executive director of Room One, takes notes for her table as participants in a community meeting discuss challenges of affordable housing in the Methow Valley.

By Ann McCreary

An energetic gathering of about 25 Methow Valley residents came together last week to brainstorm about the issue of available and affordable housing in the valley — or the lack thereof.

The “community conversation” on May 19 helped launch an initiative to identify housing needs and develop an action plan to create more housing that is affordable.

The conversation revealed that the subject of affordable housing in the Methow Valley is complex, and linked to related issues such as low wages, a seasonal work force, low housing inventory, an aging population, and the need to identify leadership to solve housing problems.

For now, the effort is led by a consultant, Julie Brunner and Associates, who was hired by the Methow Valley Long Term Recovery (MVLTR) organization to evaluate housing needs and propose ways to address them.

Brunner and two associates spent three days in the Methow Valley last week meeting with community members and learning about housing issues from a variety of sources, including people who have struggled to find housing, business owners, social services providers, elected officials, religious leaders, developers and local residents.

Their visit concluded with the community meeting in the Methow Valley Senior Center, during which participants pondered a variety of questions posed to them by Brunner, ranging from who needs housing, what kinds of housing are needed, and who is committed to taking the next steps to solve the housing problems.

Gathered at several tables, community members held lively discussions about the questions, recording their ideas on poster-sized sheets of paper that Brunner took with her to add to the information she gathered during her conversations with valley residents.

“There was a lot of energy. I was pleased with the turnout and amount of engagement” at the community meeting, Brunner said.

“Now we crunch all that [information] and look for themes and common threads,” she said.

In laying groundwork before coming to the valley, Brunner gathered data about local demographics and housing, which she presented at the community meeting. That data revealed an overall shortage of available housing.

“It’s more about availability than affordability. It’s that anything is difficult to find. The lower your financial capacity, the more difficult it’s going to be,” Brunner said.

A housing overview based on recent statistics showed the Methow Valley has 5,412 people, 2,493 households, and 4,226 housing units.

Of those housing units, 1,844 (43.5 percent) are owner-occupied, 649 (15.4 percent) are renter-occupied, 1,469 (34.8 percent) are seasonally occupied, 131 units (3.1 percent) are vacant rentals or for sale, and 133 are deemed “other vacancy,” which could include nightly rentals.

“Many of your housing units sit empty a lot of the time,” Brunner said. “Only 131 units are for sale or rent.”

Major findings

Brunner’s data (based primarily on 2014 census information) also showed that:

• The majority of households, 47 percent, are two-person households, and 27 percent are one-person households.

• Almost 58 percent of the valley’s population is older than 45. Only 23 percent is 18-44 years old.

• Among one-person households, 52 percent are renters; among two-person households, 56 percent are owners.

• 61.4 percent of households earn less than $49,999 per year.

• 17 percent of valley residents are below the poverty level, 29 percent of youth under 18 are below the poverty level, and 2.5 percent of people over 65 are below the poverty level.

• The rental housing stock in the valley is old — more than 30 percent of rental units were built between 1970-1979.

• The largest proportion of owner-occupied homes, about 23 percent, was built between 2000-2009.

• Of 649 renters, 142 pay $400-$599 in rent monthly, and 259 pay $600-$1,500.

• Almost 47 percent of renters paid 30 percent of household income or more in rent in 2014, compared to 29.3 percent of renters paying 30 percent of household income or more in 2000.

• Among homeowners, 49.5 percent of Methow Valley residents pay 30 percent of household income or more for housing costs.

Brunner said 30 percent of household income “is the conventional standard” for the maximum that should be paid in housing costs without creating a financial burden. A significant number of Methow residents are paying more than that, she noted.

She also presented data indicating that the median cost of purchasing a home in the Methow Valley is significantly higher than in the neighboring Okanogan Valley. “The same exact home in Okanogan is $100,000 less than in the Methow Valley,” she said.

Brunner said she and her staff will compile and assess the information they’ve collected, and return to the Methow Valley later in the summer to share their findings and conduct another round of in-person discussions. The goal is to develop an action plan based on community feedback by fall.

Housing has been an ongoing concern in the community, and came up repeatedly during economic focus groups sponsored last year by TwispWorks and the Twisp and Winthrop chambers of commerce.

Those organizations are part of a coalition that includes MVTLR, Room One, The Cove and the Methow Conservancy that support the housing initiative. A steering committee of community members is helping guide the process.

Once a plan is developed, Brunner said, it will be up to the Methow Valley to determine how to implement it.

“The entity to carry this forward doesn’t really exist. Sometimes it’s embedded in another organization,” she said.

“All the components are in place for something to happen around housing,” Brunner said. “We know the need is there, but are the political will and energy and resources there to pick it up and make something happen?”