What's Tony Thinking

The Rural Riddle


Here’s a riddle. How can you have lots of building going on, so much so that its near impossible to get a contractor, and yet there is a housing shortage, such that the County hospital can’t get needed employees because there is no place for them to live?

For years we’ve heard about the virtues of “supply-side” economics. That is, when wealthy people get wealthier the wealth will trickle down to everyone. With his promise of further tax-cuts on the wealthy, Donald Trump is continuing the supply-side mantra. More concentrated wealth is good for everyone.

Maybe not? Here in Wallowa County, in northeastern Oregon, very wealthy people (who don’t live here) are building homes that become VRBO’s, producing income for the owners but not adding to the housing stock for nurses, teachers and people who work in local businesses. An increasing number of the homes in nearby Joseph, Oregon stand empty 50 of the 52 weeks of the year because they are second, or third, homes for wealthy folks who live far away and visit infrequently.

The problem is not just about individual greed (although there is that). It is systemic. But the system, which allows those with large financial assets to build with limited benefit to or investment in the local community, ain’t a great system. It is also a “systemic” problem in that Wallowa County’s problems are widespread. How much do VRBO’s, AirBnB’s and people owning infrequently occupied multiple residences contribute to the housing shortage in places like Seattle?

Remember “slum-lords”? Now the problem is “palace-lords.”

This week our friend Rich Wandschneider wrote his final newsPAPER column as the Wallowa County Chieftain is abandoning it’s print edition. The Eastern Oregon media group is moving a number of its local papers out-of-print and on-line, while reducing the frequency of publication for others. Rich’s column is lovely remembrance of his 35 years as a local columnist and of the way The Chieftain has provided “glue” for this community.

What do the aforementioned “housing shortage,” a.k.a. the “work-force housing crisis,” and the disappearance of the 100 year-old local newspaper have in common? Erosion of community. Both diminish the sense of shared community that bind people together and encourage investing in the community, not only financially, but with actual participation.

While owners of vacation homes and vacation rentals do contribute to local businesses through their clients, they aren’t much invested in the community via schools, churches, other civic groups or volunteerism. They are a new kind of “extractive” industry. And the loss of the newspaper or its print edition is, as Rich so well describes, another diminishment in a small town.

On the plus-side, Linda and I did attend and participate in the County Planning Commissions “Open Forum” meeting last evening where many of these issues were discussed. It was educational and encouraging. An overwhelmed Planning Office staff and volunteer County Planning Commissioners are aware of these challenges and how complex they are. The meeting itself was a well-run exercise in democracy, which is something else that seems to be at-risk these days.

For communities such as Wallowa County, and its half-dozen small towns, the whole thing feels a bit like a David and Goliath story. Goliath: internet powered innovations like VRBO, the eclipse of  of face-to-face relationships by on-line interactions, the gap between a rich elite and everyone else, lack of incentives for affordable and “starter” home construction. David: a County Planning office with 1.25 FTE for a County whose land-mass is bigger than many nations and several states, five volunteer Planning Commissioners and local citizens who are concerned.

Can communities that attract a lot of seasonal tourists retain a sense of community and provide for the human infrastructure — healthcare workers, teachers, locally-owned businesses and families — that make it all work?


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