Camas officials should use all available tools to tackle affordable housing crisis

It’s graduation time in Camas and Washougal. Local high school graduates will don caps and gowns this weekend to bid adieu to their K-12 school days and celebrate an exciting new phase of life.

We look forward to hearing from Camas-Washougal valedictorians and educators at commencement ceremonies this weekend and showcasing local class of 2021 graduates on our website and in our next print edition of the Post-Record.

First, though, we need to talk about a less joyous issue that will, undoubtedly, impact many local graduates as they transition into the world of adulthood: the lack of affordable housing in the Camas area.

On June 21, the Camas City Council will discuss the city’s Housing Action Plan and its recommended steps toward remedying Camas’ housing gaps and creating a community that welcomes a diverse range of families and residents, including seniors on fixed incomes, service-industry and retail workers, and young people just starting out in their careers — all of whom would likely struggle to afford to buy, or even rent, a home in Camas, where the median home value in 2018 was $403,800, nearly $60,000 higher than already unaffordable median homes in the Portland-Vancouver metro area.

The city’s yearlong housing study shows many Camas homeowners and renters are already burdened by the city’s high housing costs, with over 15 percent of renters having to spend more than half their income just to rent a place in the city. Likewise, a vast majority of those who completed the city’s online housing survey in 2020 said they “strongly agreed” or “somewhat agreed” that a lack of affordable housing is a serious issue in Camas.

What’s more, there is a serious lack of housing diversity in the city: multi-family housing, which often lends itself to more affordable mortgages or rents, makes up less than 5 percent of Camas’ housing stock.

And the city’s housing plan research shows the problem of housing affordability is just getting worse in Camas, with trends showing developers are building bigger, more expensive homes and not including a mix of more affordable products in their Camas-area developments.

The issue of housing affordability — not just in Camas but throughout the entire nation — has already caused an entire generation to suffer. Studies show the majority of Millennials (which includes 30-somethings in their prime child-rearing years) are considered “rent-burdened,” with 70 percent saying they cannot afford to buy a home due to skyrocketing home prices.

Add to that the extreme college tuition and — you guessed it, college housing — costs facing our young people, and it’s hard to see how any young adult who grew up in Camas would be able to afford to move back to their hometown without substantial financial assistance.

Some may argue here that high school graduates can earn more money right away going into a trade and avoiding the high costs of a four-year college — and we certainly agree there is no “right” path to success after high school — but the National Center for Education Statistics still shows people age 25 to 34 in this nation who work full-time earn more with higher levels of education: In 2018, the median salary of a young person with a master’s or higher degree was $65,000 and went down to $54,700 for those with bachelor’s degree, $34,900 for those with only a high school diploma and $27,900 for people who did not complete high school.

How many Camas graduates walking in commencement ceremonies this weekend who choose not to pursue master’s or doctoral degrees will be lucky enough to land a job that pays enough for them to afford a home in their hometown? Likely, not too many.

Luckily, there are a few things our city leaders in Camas can do to ensure the city will have more affordable housing in the future. The city staff and consultants who have been working for nearly a year on the Camas Housing Action Plan have shown officials specific “housing gaps” that keep prospective Camas homeowners and renters out of the city, and determined which policies the city might want to implement to ensure Camas has more affordable, diverse housing in the future.

It is unfortunate to see members of the Camas Planning Commission blocked one such policy — cultivating an inclusionary housing policy that would push developers to include affordable housing units in new developments — from their recommendation to the city council, especially considering that inclusionary housing policies have proven successful at helping low-poverty towns like Camas develop “mixed-income neighborhoods” that reduce poverty rates, promote racial equity and help children from lower-income families achieve much greater levels of lifetime economic success.

We would urge city council members in Camas to take a second look at the inclusionary zoning policy when they discuss the Housing Action Plan later this month and to consider whether they want to use all the tools available to help Camas move away from an unaffordable suburb and, instead, move toward becoming a vibrant small city that welcomes a rich mix of residents.