Camas explores housing affordability, diversity

Majority of new homes in Camas are bigger, more expensive; public weighs in on city's future housing needs

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The Clara Flats mixed-use development at Northeast Birch Street and Northeast Sixth Avenue in downtown Camas, shown during its construction in February 2020, received a city tax abatement in exchange for offering six affordable apartments. (Kelly Moyer/Post-Record)

In late February, just a few weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic and its statewide shutdowns upended everyone’s normal day-to-day life, the Camas City Council listened to a presentation about the apparent need for affordable housing in the city.

City leaders learned that the question, “Who needs affordable housing in Camas?” applied not only to the majority (72 percent) of city employees who earn 50 percent or less than the area’s median income, but also to nearly one-third of the city’s school teachers.

The statistics didn’t get as much play as they might have had the pandemic never happened.

Flash-forward seven months and the city has returned to its housing discussion.

Funded by a $100,000 grant from the Washington State Department of Commerce, the city is pulling together a detailed Housing Action Plan to review the types of housing available now in Camas and plan for more affordable, more diverse types of housing over the next 10 years.

Last week, dozens of community members took part in two public meetings on Zoom to help guide the city’s Housing Action Plan.

“We had planned to have open houses because those have always been really well-attended,” explained Sarah Fox, the city’s lead planner.

The pandemic, of course, made hosting public open houses impossible, so Fox, along with one of the city’s Housing Action Plan consultants, Melissa Mailloux, of Mosaic Community Planning, hosted two remote meetings on Wednesday and Thursday, Sept. 16-17.

The meetings weren’t as well-attended as the city’s normal open houses, Fox said, but provided dozens of interested residents with an overview of the project and encouraged public comments and questions.

The meetings, Fox said, will help city planners and consultants “better understand existing housing conditions and what citizens need in (the Camas) community.”

The initiative was delayed by the pandemic — the state awarded the grant in December 2019 and the city chose Mosaic as its outside consultant firm in March before city leaders put a hold on all non-essential projects due to COVID-19 constraints — but the city’s final Housing Action Plan is still due to the state by June 2021.

That means city planners and Mosaic consultants have just nine months to produce a detailed inventory of the city’s housing units; talk to stakeholders and groups with unique housing needs such as seniors, people with disabilities and young families; collect more public feedback; come up with an action plan; present that plan to the city council for refinement; rework the plan; and, finally, have city council agree to adopt the plan.

“We were delayed getting started,” Fox said. “We got the greenlight in June to move forward (with non-essential city projects) but the state didn’t push off the deadline for this plan. They still want us to finish it by next June.”

Lack of diversity, affordability in Camas housing

Residents who participated in last week’s public Zoom meetings learned a few more facts about Camas and its lack of affordable and diverse housing.

Fox, who does an annual inventory of the city’s housing permits, said most of the new home permits in Camas approved between 2015 and 2020 were for larger, 2,000- to- 3,000-square-foot, single-family homes, which tend to come with higher sales and rental prices.

In December 2019, Fox told city leaders the city has allocated only 5 percent of its land area to multi-family housing and that, “over the past nine years, 70 percent of new housing stock has been over 3,000 square feet.”

Fox added that Camas’ median housing costs are nearly twice as expensive as Clark County as a whole.

“City leadership is interested in making real progress on the comprehensive plan’s housing goals and policies,” Fox said in 2019. “A Housing Action Plan will increase residential building capacity by identifying strategies to amend policies and regulations to diversify the city’s housing stock for future generations.”

This doesn’t mean the city is set to build affordable housing complexes in the city, Fox added. Rather, government’s role in affordable housing is to provide conditions that encourage more affordable units by, for example, offering tax incentives to developers; rethinking zoning rules to help the city gain more affordable, multi-family developments; and even easing rules pertaining to things like “mother-in-law apartments” and converted garages or basements on existing, single-family properties.

“The market doesn’t provide affordable housing,” Fox recently told the Post-Record. “The market develops new housing at market rate and developers are trying to make a profit. I don’t blame them for that, but we need government and other municipalities to step in and help make this (affordable housing) happen. There is a responsibility for government to take an interest in the market and Camas citizens aren’t always aware of that.”

One recent example of a development project that took advantage of a government-offered tax abatement program in Camas can be found at the corner of Northeast Sixth Avenue and Northeast Birch Street in downtown Camas.

The three-story Clara Flats development, which started renting homes this summer, is a mixed-use project with retail on the ground floor and rental housing, including one- and two-bedroom apartments and three-bedroom townhomes, on the upper two floors.

Most of the apartments at Clara Flats rent at market rates: starting at $1,399 a month for a one-bedroom unit and $2,500 a month for a three-bedroom townhome.

In 2019, the city of Camas agreed to give the project a 12-year tax abatement in exchange for 20 percent of the units (six apartments) qualifying as affordable for moderate-income households, or those who earn 80 percent or less than Clark County’s median income.

For a person earning 80 percent of the county’s median individual income ($49,280 annually), affordable rent for a one-bedroom unit is $1,232 per month, or 30 percent of the person’s monthly income. For a household of four earning 80 percent of the county’s median family income, an affordable rental, including utilities, would cost no more than $1,758 per month.

Mosaic consultants said the average cost of a one-bedroom apartment in Clark County costs $1,289 per month, which means a person would need to earn $51,500 a year, or $25 an hour working a 40-hour week, to afford an average one-bedroom apartment in the county. The average wage-earner in the county earns less than $25 an hour, and would need to work more than 40 hours a week to afford a one-bedroom apartment. Two people earning what the Mosaic consultants referred to as the county’s “average renter wage,” for example, would each need to work 50 hours a week to afford an average three-bedroom apartment.

“To afford a two-bedroom would require 85 hours of work (per week) at minimum wage,” Jeremy Gray, of Mosaic, said during the Sept. 17 meeting.

Citizens weigh in on housing needs

Many of the Camas residents participating in the Zoom meetings had concerns about affordable housing in the area.

“I do agree that there are a lot of larger homes here that are obviously more expensive,” one woman said during the Sept. 17 public Zoom meeting. “It is hard to find a starter home. ”

She added that she would like to see more modestly priced homes in Camas to help young families afford to live in the city.

Another meeting participant said she strongly agreed that Camas needs a greater variety of housing types.

“I have two teenage boys, and I really hope my kids can grow up and be like, ‘I want to keep living in Camas,'” she said, adding that this might be tough without some smaller, more affordable housing units in the area. “Buying a starter home (in Camas) was very hard because many were bigger houses. And the smaller houses were not updated or wouldn’t grow with (a young family). Having a starter home that was modest and not too huge was important for me.”

Others said they wished Camas had more housing for its aging population, including more single-level, affordable homes.

Some participants at the city’s public meetings said they hope future multi-family housing built in Camas will be located close to public transportation, shops, restaurants, grocery stores and other amenities.

“I hate to see houses stacked on top of each other with no yard and nothing around them to do,” one woman said. “I think those mixed-use areas are important. And walkability is really important to the quality of life for anyone moving here.”

The city and Mosaic consultants will be working on the Housing Action Plan for the next nine months. To learn more about the housing initiative, visit LetsTalkC