Homelessness looks different in the Methow Valley than it does in places like Seattle, where civic leaders and residents alike despair of ever solving the problem. There, encampments pop up and are cleared by the city, only to migrate to another spot where there might be enough space to throw up a few tents. Increasingly, the encampments are more visible, even in established residential neighborhoods. There are ongoing efforts to provide minimal housing, but those programs don’t get at the root causes of homelessness in an urban area.
In the Methow, the lack of a permanent place to live — which is different from chronic homelessness — is less visible but no less palpable. Some people have been known to camp out, moving from place to place. Others live in vehicles including RVs. Some drive from far away for a Methow job. A few find temporary spaces but are always looking for the next spot to land. They may be just as itinerate as the Seattle homeless, even if they are indoors.
The local housing stock simply isn’t adequate, or affordable, to accommodate all the people who want to live and work here, especially as we experience an onslaught of people who want to recreate here. The search for suitable rentals, which are in desperately short supply, can be demoralizing and ultimately force people to leave. Many of those looking to buy — even those with well-paying, stable employment — are being priced out by rising costs, or frustrated by the lack of diverse inventory. You can buy high, or buy low, but the middle is essentially missing.
We’re all aware of the matrix of forces behind the housing squeeze, one of them the mismatch between what employers can afford to pay and what aspiring residents need to afford to rent or buy. Economic and environmental factors are major influencers on housing availability. The side effects of COVID-19 exacerbated the problem, as a buying boom swept up many available properties in both the towns and rural areas. Winthrop and Twisp are faced with the question of whether to limit overnight rentals within town limits. Every house that’s not home to a local is a lost opportunity.
Other areas of the West that rely on tourism face similar challenges. Service industry job openings are plentiful, but wages are still at the bottom of the scale and affordable housing is a phantom notion. We’ve written about the plight of local businesses that can’t find enough workers, to the point that they have cut back hours or services, or stayed dark even as we come out of the coronavirus shadow.
“Affordable housing” is an elusive thing to define. It can’t be simply warehousing in minimalistic living spaces. People want to end the work day at a place that feels like home. “Affordable” means something different to someone who is holding down two or three local jobs than it does to someone who has a full-time, decently paying job.
Fortunately, we living in a proactive community where smart people are thinking about practical ways to mitigate what could be called, without overdramatizing, a housing crisis.
As a newspaper, we can be part of that effort. And we intend to. We are in the early stages of developing a major package of stories on the valley’s housing challenge, which will appear over several months in addition to our regular weekly coverage.
The project is the brainchild of Managing Editor Natalie Johnson, who herself spent several months commuting from Okanogan to her job in the valley before she fortuitously found a place to live. Natalie is overseeing the project, which will be organized around a classical investigative reporting structure:
• Define the problem.
• Document its effects on the community.
• Explore possible approaches to solving the problem.
Natalie and our reporters have been brainstorming ideas, and have come up with a lot of potential articles that will include personal tales. If you have one to tell, we’d love to hear it. We also welcome your thoughts about questions we should be asking or issues we should be exploring. Email Natalie at firstname.lastname@example.org with your suggestions.
We’ll also be tapping the resources of local organizations that are working on the housing issue to help us understand the scope of the challenge, and what has been done to address it to date.
The overarching question is, what kind of community does the Methow Valley want to be? Some people are wary that the very things that make the Methow special, and attract people who want to stay, are in jeopardy in the face of growth. Others believe that unreasonable restrictions are hampering efforts to build more housing. Finding a middle ground will take time, and we don’t have any to waste.