CHELAN – Walking into room filled with community members, all in wait for the first of many town hall meetings to commence, is usually a sure sign of the level of awareness within the community on any given subject. This particular night, Tuesday, Jan. 16, the discussion was all about the need for affordable housing in Chelan. “The reason that we’re doing these town hall meetings is that we’ve found it’s so hard to have a dialogue at city council,” Chelan Mayor Mike Cooney explained, then added that he would like to see more town hall meetings held, at least once per quarter.
Cooney led into the night’s discussions with an introductory flow chart of the needs and problems in the community’s lack of housing. “I think (everyone) has an idea of what affordable housing is,” he began, “but it’s very hard to put it down on paper and to actually see it transpose into something affordable.” The intent of the meeting was to not only identify the root cause of the affordable housing dilemma in Chelan, but to also identify possible solutions for the creation and sustainability of affordable housing within Chelan’s city limits.
“I’m going to make an admission,” expressed Cooney, “when I was on council, maybe it was the economy, maybe it was my hardheadedness, but my admission is that I did not believe that it was hard to find affordable homes in Chelan. I thought you could go out and get a house on Trow (St. for example) at a reasonable price, times have changed, things have changed, I’ve had a conversion … I pledge that I’m going to work every week for the last two years of my administration here to get affordable homes built here, but it’s going to take the whole community and everybody contributing and pulling on the ores at the same time.”
The negative impacts from the lack of affordable housing, as explained by Cooney, include the residents of Chelan relocating to a more affordable area. “I went to a school board meeting, and I heard that 15 families left to find more affordable housing and moved out of the school district,” he explained, “I think the loss of sense of community and the divide in our community will grow even larger when it’s the ‘have’s’ and the ‘have not’s’ and we want to all be the have’s … even when you own your own home, it is still your problem. It is still your problem that people cannot afford homes in Chelan.” One-third of the workers inside city limits are forced to reside outside the city boundaries, which results in a high financial and time cost from the commute. Quoting Robert Kennedy, Mayor Cooney expressed, “those that are advantaged have a responsibility to help those who are at a disadvantage.”
The lack of affordable housing is as severe as it is now for a slew of reasons, explained Cooney. A primary factor to be considered as a direct cause include the high rent amounts and low inventory available in Chelan, and the growth of high end second homes. “I think about it as a great big glazed donut, with a lot of sweetness along the edges and a hollowed out middle,” explained Cooney, “and that’s our middle, that middle is what we have to address and make sure it doesn’t completely disappear on us.”
Initiating the night’s presentations was Kevin Ramsey of Berk Consulting. “We’ve also done a lot of housing work in other communities,” began Ramsey, “I’ve done a lot of housing needs assessments and have done these assessments with the City of Leavenworth, City of Ellensburg and City of Wenatchee, so I’ve had a lot of experience in the challenges in Central Washington and the commonality of some of those challenges.” The purpose of the assessments is to identify what the local factors are that contribute to the rising housing costs in the communities, he explained, “supply and demand are always key contributors,” he offered, “but there’s other factors as well that sometimes are unique to discerning communities … I think Chelan is a good example.” Ramsey supplied staggering statistics from his assessments for Chelan. The biggest statistic that prompted universal dismay throughout the audience was the announcement that over 800 workers in Chelan city limits, over 40 percent of the workers, travel in excess of 25 miles to their jobs in Chelan. Of the 800 plus works, 433 of them commute over 50 miles. “Increased competition for a limited supply of housing drives up housing prices,” he announced, “more supply is only part of the solution, it’s not the only part of the solution.” More and more homes are being used in the short-term/vacation rental market (or second home market), which results in less that can be used for year-round affordable housing, he pointed out. The next step, he suggested, is to identify the local barriers preventing the creation of the affordable houses and identify strategies to address them and implement policies on them.
Tim Flood of the Catholic Charities Housing Services of Yakima took the podium to share of his experiences as well. “In 1998 the organization was formed and the first project that we got involved with was here in Chelan.” Flood began. The availability for governmental grants for affordable housing are less than they used to be, he explained, and with a nation-wide increased need for the housing, receiving the grants is taking longer than it ever has before. Responsible and professional staffing is also extremely crucial for the success of these builds, he added. “It takes a very educated staff to address these problems and be aware of them … you need sustainability if you’re going to be doing this … the best thing I could tell you is that properly done and properly administrated the housing business can work, but it takes a very professional staff to make it work because it’s very difficult.”
Following Flood’s insight was a brief speech from Realtor Guy Evans with Coldwell Banker Lake Chelan Properties. Evans explained the need to acknowledge the two types of economy in the Chelan Valley, economies he identified as the four-two-five (425) economy and the five-oh-nine (509) Chelan economy. “The 425 (economy) is really filled with this wealth that’s coming from retirees or second home buyers, and that’s kicked up to a crazy pace as of late,” he explained, “the 509 economy is fueled by what all of us who live and work here make, so those homes are inevitably tied to what someone can afford to pay, whether it’s on a rental or buying a home.” The recently completed comp plan doesn’t take into consideration the two economies, he explained, “so, there’s just this kind of one-size-fits-all interpretation when it comes to availability of land and the infrastructure that it takes to support homes on that land,” he said.
The meeting included various other informative speakers on the housing crisis as well. Community members and representatives from throughout the valley voiced opinions and offered suggestions for the housing dilemma the city faces.
“We feel it is a right for people to have your own home here,” Cooney expressed, “for me, in my heart, I’d like to see us build, as a community, somebody’s first home before we build somebody’s second home, and I hope everybody gets that … we are in a critical period of our town’s history,” then adding, “this is not about charity, this is not about charitable things, this is about the people that we all know working two or three jobs, and their spending most of that income, 60 percent of that income, to live in Chelan, because they want to stay in Chelan.”
The City of Chelan will hold a workshop, Tuesday, Feb. 6 at 6 p.m. inside City Hall and will be discussing affordable housing and avenues to take to reach the end goal of providing a home for every community member.
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