Research finds availability is an enduring problem

By Marcy Stamper

Recent research into the housing supply in the Methow Valley reveals some stark numbers that may help explain the scarcity of affordable housing.

  • There are actually nine more housing units used only seasonally than occupied full-time by their owners (2,011 versus 2,002).
  • Of the 5,000 total housing units, including rentals, fewer than 300 are vacant and available for rent or for sale.
  • More than one in five children in the Methow live in households that are below the poverty level.

These figures are included in a detailed housing assessment conducted over the past six months by consultants hired by Methow Valley Long Term Recovery (MVLTR). The consultants presented their findings — gathered from census data; a survey of local residents; and focus groups with local residents, businesspeople and social-service providers — at a community meeting on Thursday (Oct. 6).

MVLTR first came together two years ago in the aftermath of the Carlton Complex Fire. “Housing was an acute issue after the Carlton Complex, but the needs analysis showed that housing is more than an acute event. It has existed for many years,” said Jason Paulsen, executive director of the Methow Conservancy and president of MVLTR.

To focus on the housing issue, MVLTR convened a steering committee, which includes representatives from Room One, The Cove, the towns of Twisp and Winthrop, and people in the real estate and construction sectors.

Affordability and availability are related, but not necessarily the same, said study consultant Julie Brunner. In some areas, there is so little housing available that — even if people have the money — they can’t find a place to rent or buy, she said.

Hot problem

“My instinct is that it’s a screaming-hot problem, not an evolving problem,” Brunner said when asked to characterize the Methow’s housing needs. The problem has a long history in the Methow Valley and has been getting worse, she said.

Brunner drew on her experience working with an organization that builds affordable housing on Orcas Island in the San Juan Islands to come up with that assessment, she said. There are many parallels between the Methow Valley and Orcas, including a tourism-based economy and a high proportion of second-home owners, she said.

The situation on Orcas has become so dire that some businesses have posted signs reading, “Closed Because of a Lack of Affordable Housing,” said Brunner.

The consultants focused on a geographic area from Mazama to Pateros to the Loup Loup summit, according to Keira Armstrong, who did the data analysis. It did not include the town of Pateros.

Their information came from the census and a community survey, which was distributed by employers to their employees and to others in the valley by Room One. While it wasn’t a representative sample of all residents, the survey, which drew 89 responses, provided additional details about the people who were looking for housing and the overall housing stock, said Armstrong.

Using the most recent census data for 2014, their research found the total Methow Valley population was 5,751 people, in 2,669 households. Of the 4,996 housing units in the Methow Valley, 2,002 were owner-occupied and 2,011 are seasonally occupied. There are 667 occupied by renters.

The analysis shows very low vacancy rates. There were 131 vacant rentals or houses for sale, and 155 termed “other vacancy.” The census calls housing units that don’t fit into other categories as “other vacant.” That includes places where the owner does not want to rent or sell, housing that is unoccupied because the owner is living in a nursing home, and units being renovated or used for storage, said Armstrong.

The assessment explains why housing options that qualify as “affordable” — generally considered to be a mortgage or rent that is one-third of household income — are few and far between. Almost 39 percent of people in the Methow Valley pay more than a third of their income for housing. That number has jumped since 2000, when it was just 26 percent.

Average rent and utilities paid by survey respondents is $740 per month, $90 more than what they called “affordable.”

County, state comparisons

The needs analysis compared the Methow Valley to Okanogan County and to Washington state. Vacancy rates here are not that different from those in the county or state, but fewer households in the Methow are occupied by their owners — 40 percent of units in the Methow are owner occupied, versus 50 percent in the county and 57 percent across the state. In the Methow, 13 percent are rented, compared to 23 percent in the county and 34 percent in the state.

The biggest contrast comes in the number of seasonal residences. They make up 40.5 percent of the housing stock in the Methow, compared with 19 percent in the rest of the county and 3 percent statewide.

Demographics are also different here. From 2000 to 2014, there has been a big jump in older residents. There was a 4-percent increase in residents aged 45 to 65, and an even bigger increase — 5.5 percent — in those 65 and older. The Methow population under 45 dropped, with the biggest decrease in the 18-to-44 age group, which fell by almost 7 percent. The population of children fell by 3 percent.

In terms of income, the majority of households in the Methow were in the $25,000 to $50,000 category — a higher proportion than in the county or state. The rest of Okanogan County had more households with incomes below $25,000.

But even with fewer households in the Methow below the poverty line, those households are where children are likely to live — the 28.5 percent of children living in poverty in the Methow was just below the county figure of 30 percent. Both of those numbers are much higher than in the rest of the state, where 18 percent of children are in households below the poverty line.

The Methow is atypical because fewer seniors here live in poverty — four times as many seniors in the rest of the county are poor.

Going without basics

The survey provided a more detailed and qualitative look at housing realities in the Methow. Half of those who completed the survey are renters; 28 percent own a home; and one-fourth are living with family, couch-surfing or camping.

Slightly more than half of the survey respondents are employed full-time, although that could include people who hold several part-time or seasonal jobs, said Brunner.

Almost half of the survey respondents had moved more than twice in the past three years, indicating significant disruption and added expenses. The survey didn’t ask why people had moved. A third hadn’t moved at all.

The majority described their housing as high-quality, but one-quarter listed problems including poor insulation and overcrowding. Some were living in a tent or vehicle or without plumbing.

Toward action

The consultants met with the housing steering committee last week to go over their findings and begin looking at next steps.

Any affordable housing units constructed here would need to be subsidized, whether by grants from the state’s Housing Trust Fund or a private entity, said Brunner. It is likely private subsidies would be necessary because the trust fund focuses on reducing homelessness, and numbers of homeless people in rural areas are generally not high enough to qualify. Private funding can also speed the time from planning to completion, she said.

Glenn Schmekel, executive director of The Cove and a member of the steering committee, said it is estimated they would need to subsidize between $60,000 and $80,000 of the cost per housing unit.

Housing can be affordable and still tailored to local preferences and needs. Brunner showed examples on the San Juan Islands and elsewhere in Washington that included owner-occupied, single-family houses and duplexes, as well as rentals. Some are new construction and others renovations of formerly substandard housing. All have restrictions on how much the price or rent can go up.

With such a high proportion of housing units that are empty much of the year, people wondered about the potential for encouraging these property owners to offer long-term rentals. Some people believe that short-term vacation rentals and online businesses such as Airbnb and Vacation Rentals by Owner have exacerbated the housing shortage, said Brunner.

In planning for new affordable housing units, they would aim for rents between $500 and $800 and sales prices between $150,000 and $200,000, said Brunner. Other needs include single-story homes in town for seniors, some of whom may be able to pay market rates, she said.

The next steps include coming up with an action plan and finding people interested in working with a group to address housing needs, said Brunner. For more information or to become involved, contact Paulsen at 996-5866 or

The final study will be available to the public at local libraries and possibly online, most likely by the end of October.