Camas one step closer to approving affordable housing strategies

Report shows even moderate earners struggle to afford Camas home prices; city council may approve yearlong, $100K grant-funded Housing Action Plan in July

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 files)

With a median home price of $403,800 — more than $100,000 over the median Clark County home price — and new homes getting bigger and costlier each year, living in Camas is becoming too expensive for many families.

“Data shows that lower income households are heavily impacted by a lack of affordability (in Camas),” states a recent Housing Action Plan funded by a $100,000 state grant and drafted by Camas city staff and outside consultants. “Of those with incomes under 30 percent of the area median income, four out of five face difficulty finding suitable housing, including 90 percent of homeowners.”

The consultants found that even families earning 100 to 120 of the area’s median annual income of $74,700 have trouble affording a home in Camas.

“At moderate and middle incomes, housing needs are reduced for renters but remain high for homeowners,” the city’s Housing Action Plan (HAP) states.

If Camas City Council members approve the HAP at their first August council meeting, the city will have a roadmap of strategies designed to make Camas more affordable for all income levels, including seniors on fixed-incomes and young people just starting their careers.

Allowing people of all income levels to live in Camas and enjoy the city’s schools, parks, open spaces and other amenities is something Camas residents said they wanted when the city crafted its 2035 Comprehensive Plan.

“The goal of this plan is to further the goals and policies of Camas 2035 to achieve a greater variety of housing types and costs to better meet the needs and desires of individuals and families,” Camas Senior Planner Sarah Fox wrote in her staff report to city councilors this week.

The Council held a public hearing on the HAP on Monday, June 21.

The hearing came at the end of a year’s worth of public outreach. The council discussed the HAP at six workshops in 2019, 2020 and 2021; the plan also came before the Camas Planning Commission five times, beginning in June 2019; the city held three online open houses and one focus group meeting; HAP consultants and Camas city staff met with stakeholder groups — including a group of Camas high-schoolers, homeless services professionals, and people in education, government, transportation and urban planner positions — in the fall of 2020; the HAP website had roughly 2,400 visitors; and the city posted an open, online survey August to November 2020, which received 307 responses.

The online survey tended to attract white, wealthy Camas homeowners. Of those who responded to the online survey, 95 percent lived in Camas; 88 percent owned their own home; 40 percent had incomes over $150,000 a year (29 percent had incomes of $100,000 to $149,000 a year); and 75 percent identified as white (12 percent chose “other” or declined to share their race/ethnicity).

Consultant Melissa Mailloux, of Mosaic Community Planning, told city councilors during the Monday, June 21 public hearing that Camas was “one of several cities and counties doing projects like this” thanks to funding from the state’s Department of Commerce.

The draft HAP city councilors reviewed on Monday contains strategies approved by the Planning Commission that will help ensure Camas has more diverse and affordable housing over the next decade and beyond.

“Projections based on anticipated population growth indicate the need for about 4,590 additional housing units in Camas through 2040,” the plan states. “Thoughtful changes to Camas’ zoning and development regulations can allow the City to better accommodate projected growth.”

If the council approves the HAP and begins to implement some of the strategies suggested in the plan, the city will be able to better accommodate future growth, expand its limited stock of affordable housing and diversify the types of homes available in Camas, where multi-family homes, which tend to be more affordable for lower-income families, make up less than 5 percent of the city’s total housing.

“Since 2010, development in Camas has trended toward larger, single-family homes. In 2020, 90 percent of units permitted were single-family homes over 2,000 square feet; most were over 3,000 square feet,” the draft housing plan states. “Community input, demographic data and housing need estimates indicate a need for more diverse housing options, including smaller homes and multifamily housing. A greater variety of housing types can better serve young families, small households, seniors, people with disabilities, and people with a greater variety of incomes. In considering smaller housing types, Camas will be deliberate about maintaining a safe pedestrian environment.”

The proposed HAP has eight strategies city leaders could develop to help diversify housing and make Camas a more affordable place to live. Those strategies, approved by the Camas Planning Commission, include:

  • Expanding housing opportunities in mixed-use and downtown commercial districts;
  • Considering making targeted rezones during Comprehensive Plan updates;
  • Diversifying allowed housing types and updating related lot and dimensional standards;
  • Focusing on key areas with residential development or redevelopment potential and expanding more mixed-use areas throughout the city;
  • Continuing community conversations around housing and housing for all;
  • Communicating available affordable housing resources (to developers, landlords, renters, potential homebuyers, etc.);
  • Building partnerships to develop and preserve affordable housing for individuals, families and seniors, and exploring the expansion of the city’s tax credit program for multifamily housing developments; and
  • Exploring funding sources and cost-reduction options for affordable housing.

Public weighs in, asks for more housing in downtown Camas

Four members of the public weighed in on the draft HAP during the public hearing on Monday. Camas resident Randal Friedman urged the city council to address fallow property owned by the Georgia-Pacific paper mill for future residential housing and said “housing belongs downtown … decommissioned portions of the mill … should be rezoned to mixed-use.”

Carrie Schulstad, the executive director of the Downtown Camas Association, agreed. In a letter sent to the city council, Schulstad said it was “imperative for downtown Camas to have more close-in housing.”

“The mill property will have significant future potential and it is important to consider best uses for our community now,” Schulstad added. “The DCA encourages you to look at the entire downtown, including the mill property (when looking at housing options).”

Councilmember Don Chaney later asked if the draft HAP could address Friedman’s concerns about the mill site and having mixed-use developments in downtown Camas in the future.

“The strategy of allowing housing on mill property is in two of the strategies before you tonight: rezoning and increasing mixed-use throughout the city,” Fox said. “Within the document itself, it talks about different areas of the city and actually says, ‘the mill property,’ as a potential for rezoning and mixed-use.”

The paper mill property takes up several hundred acres in downtown Camas and sits on the city’s only downtown waterfront property. Though Georgia-Pacific, a subsidiary of Koch Industries, has decreased its footprint and decommissioned its pulping operations and one of its two remaining paper lines over the past two years, the company has repeatedly said it has no plans to close the Camas mill or move away from its downtown Camas location any time soon.

Planning Commission opposed mandatory inclusionary housing policies

The draft HAP that came to the city council this month was absent one strategy city staff and consultants brought to the Camas Planning Commission: the addition of an inclusionary housing policy that would require developers to include a small percentage of affordable housing in their plans if they wanted to build in Camas.

Fox and Mailloux brought the inclusionary zoning idea to the Planning Commission in February, and said cities throughout the country that have made inclusionary zoning mandatory for developers have had far more success than jurisdictions like Camas, where the developers are simply encouraged to include more diverse and affordable homes or units in their developments.

“They are more successful when developers have to comply or pay into an account versus a voluntary program with the option of having an inclusionary component,” Mailloux told the Planning Commission members in February. “This type (of mandatory inclusionary zoning) works particularly well in … attractive areas to develop, where developers want to develop there even with the inclusionary requirement. We think Camas falls into that category.”

Though the city does already encourage developers to include a mix of housing types — and even offer tax breaks for developers who include affordable units in their multifamily housing developments — Fox told the Planning Commission members the voluntary program has not been too successful.

“We are encouraging (a mix of housing types), but developers come in with a housing type they’ve been building … so the idea of mixing in another new design is probably not a top priority for them,” Fox said.

Planning Commission members were not swayed. In the end, the Commission knocked the inclusionary zoning strategy out of the draft HAP.

“The Planning Commission was strongly opposed to inclusionary housing policies,” Fox told city council members at the council’s June 7 workshop.

Council members approved the draft HAP on Monday, and instructed the city’s attorney to draft a resolution for formal adoption at the council’s next meeting in July.

To learn more about the draft Housing Action Plan, visit the city council’s online agenda for the Monday, June 21 meeting at https://bit.ly/3qjPmWB or read past articles at the Post-Record online:

o “Camas explores housing affordability, diversity” (Sept. 24, 2020): https://bit.ly/3zPMJQz

o “No place to call home? Camas housing study shows lack of affordable options” (March 4, 2021): https://bit.ly/3xAxdX4