New group aims to create more options for valley
By Marcy Stamper
A new nonprofit is being launched with the goal of creating 15 new units of affordable housing in the Methow Valley in the next two or three years.
Over the next 20 years, the group hopes to build or convert a total of 100 affordable units, both for rent and for sale.
The ambitious goals grow out of efforts by Methow Valley Long Term Recovery (MVLTR) to address a variety of needs that arose after the 2014 Carlton Complex Fire.
MVLTR’s housing steering committee determined that addressing housing needs was the top priority. It’s a conclusion bolstered by the Methow Valley Housing Availability and Affordability Strategy & Action Plan completed last month by consultants hired by MVLTR.
Even before the disasters, there was a severe shortage of affordable housing in the Methow Valley — and few vacant rentals available at any price, according to the action plan.
“It became clear during the community conversations that people are certain that the time is right for action in the Methow Valley,” wrote the consultants. “They cite many positive community characteristics, a recent history of coming together after the fires, and specific pieces of land or buildings that could easily be converted into affordable housing opportunities.”
The action plan adds details to a preliminary report presented at a public meeting in early October. It provides an in-depth look at the Methow Valley population and how they make ends meet and cope with housing needs. It also looks at what one person interviewed for the report describes as two separate worlds, with many residents working multiple jobs and living in inadequate housing, and others here in vacation homes occupied only seasonally.
The housing assessment quotes a local business owner who summed up the financial and social ramifications: “This valley is a valley of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ … There are many people who are working really hard and are living in shacks and trailers and it’s hard to see.”
People already struggling to meet their housing costs are having an increasingly tough time today, according to the findings. In 2000, 48 percent of Methow households spent less than 20 percent on housing. Today, only 21 percent of households pay less than 20 percent on housing, and 39 percent pay more than 35 percent. The researchers say 20 percent put more than half their income toward housing.
While residents of the Methow Valley have a higher median household income than in Okanogan County as a whole, the percentage of children below the poverty line is virtually the same in the Methow as in the rest of the county — about 30 percent.
The researchers called that statistic “surprising” and said it indicates that “poverty in the Methow Valley is concentrated amongst families, children and young adults.”
The study found that many Methow residents struggle to earn enough to cover housing costs, and that this is made more difficult by a high overall cost of living — in particular, heat, child care and transportation. Many people work multiple, often seasonal, jobs or supplement government assistance with employment to get by.
The researchers found a striking contrast between the economic status of residents in the towns of Winthrop and Twisp. More than twice as many Twisp residents are unemployed. Those who are employed earn, on average, only a little more than half (58 percent) of what Winthrop residents earn, according to the report.
“Since Twisp has a higher population, it means that about 400 residents in Twisp are living on less than $25,000 per year, while only 80 residents in Winthrop rely on that level of household income,” wrote the researchers.
On the surface, the Methow Valley has plenty of housing stock. With 4,966 housing units in 2014, it “seems like it would more than accommodate the estimated 2,669 households,” the researchers said. However, 41 percent of those units are occupied only seasonally – in fact, there are actually nine more housing units used only seasonally than occupied full-time by their owners (2,011 versus 2,002).
Many people reported how hard it is to find a rental or, if they do find one, to be chosen to rent it. Barriers include the difficulty of saving money for first and last month’s rent and a deposit. “Complicating issues (children, pets, a criminal record, medical issues, being homeless or unemployed, being over age 55 or unreliable references) made it almost impossible,” according to the plan.
Moreover, the supply of subsidized rental units in the Methow is very small. There are just 68 — 53 in Twisp and 15 in Winthrop — and 25 of them are reserved for seniors.
While the sheer number of residential properties has increased over the past 15 years, most of the new units are owner-occupied and many only seasonally occupied, according to the study.
Beyond pressures on housing attributed to wildfires and floods in 2014 and 2015, the researchers report an overall impression that businesses like Airbnb and Vacation Rental by Owner have cut into the number of regular rentals. “The introduction of on-line booking services for vacation rental units has likely further reduced the availability of year-round rental units,” they said.
The housing strategy was based on census data; interviews with focus groups and community representatives from various job sectors, social service agencies, and real estate and construction industries. They also distributed a survey through employers and Room One, the social services agency in Twisp.
The study focused on a geographic area from Mazama to Pateros to the Loup Loup summit. In 2014, that area comprised 5,751 residents living in 2,669 households. One-quarter of the households include children, but most are one- or two-person households. Most renters live alone.
The study describes different ways to make housing affordable, including government subsidies and rentals or owner-occupied homes that remain affordable because of restrictions on how much the rent or resale price can go up.
The new organization will hire staff and begin to look at options, including potential sites for affordable housing identified by focus groups. Suggestions include hotels such as the Blue Spruce and Idle-a-While in Twisp and undeveloped lots in both Twisp and Winthrop. There is also a need for at least 20 employee housing units in Mazama, potentially at an existing lodging accommodation, they said.