Camas’ lack of affordable housing hurts the whole community

Camas city staff and consultants have spent the better part of a year working on what will eventually become the city’s Housing Action Plan. 

We outline some of their research, as well as a recent discussion at the Camas Planning Commission about a few of the tools the city might employ to help bring more diverse and affordable housing to Camas in the future, on today’s front page article, “No place to call home?” 

One story, of course, cannot cover everything included in a nearly 90-page draft — especially when that draft contains months worth of public outreach and dozens of charts and graphs explaining the city’s current state of housing and employment — so we will follow this issue as it winds its way through a second round of public input, goes back to the Planning Commission and, finally, makes its way to the Camas City Council for debate, tweaks and, finally approval. 

As city officials begin to explore ways to remedy some of Camas’ most glaring housing gaps, they should keep this fact in mind: high housing costs hurt the entire community, even those who can afford to live in a city like Camas, where there are currently four times as many homes listed on Realtor.com for $1 million or more than there are homes selling for less than $300,000.

“High home prices caused by inadequate supply will reverberate in the larger economy,” explains a 2018 Urban Institute report, which showed that communities with high housing costs suffer from a reduced demand for consumer goods, with homeowners and renters spending money they may have spent in the local economy — in local retail shops and restaurants in downtown Camas, for instance — on rent or mortgage payments instead. 

“Housing for many people is the most significant portion of their income, so the more that is devoted to housing naturally means the less that can be devoted to other things,” a Virginia county official told NPR in Jan. 13, 2020, report titled, “Why the housing crisis is a problem for everyone — even wealthy homeowners.”

The draft housing action plan presented to the Camas Planning Commission in February shows nearly 40 percent of the jobs located in Camas pay less than $3,333 a month. Meanwhile, in 2018, the average Camas homeowner was paying $2,184 a month for housing costs. 

Without a move toward more affordable housing, many of Camas’ most essential workers — the teachers, firefighters, paramedics, park maintenance employees, library assistants, pharmacy techs, grocery store workers, community news reporters, retail employees, coaches, pastors and food service workers that help give Camas that “small-town feel” everyone likes to talk about when they praise the city — will soon be priced out of town by a housing market that favors expansive and expensive single-family homes over smaller, more affordable houses or multi-family housing. 

If the city does not take action now to help ensure more affordable housing in the future, many Camas workers, even those earning a moderate salary in a professional industry, will suffer the consequences. A 2017 study of more than 34,000 workers in the United Kingdom found that workers with longer commutes to and from work were less productive and more likely to have financial concerns, suffer from depression, report work-related stress, get less than seven hours of sleep each night and be obese than workers who had shorter commutes.

The UK study’s authors advocated for more flexible work schedules, but flexibility is not something available to many Camas employees who commute to the city to teach at schools, work as a first responder, or ring up customers at a local boutique. Instead, city officials must take steps to prevent the commute in the first place. And the only way that will happen is if Camas workers have more affordable housing options inside the city limits. 

The planning commissioners heard in February that Camas already has several development tools written into its code that could help ensure more diverse and affordable housing in the future. The problem seems to lie in the fact that city leaders have not required developers and builders to use some of these tools. Instead of requiring a developer to include a certain number of affordable units in a multi-family housing development or to build smaller, one-story homes that might make sense for Camas’ aging population, for example, the city offers tax incentives … and builders aren’t biting. 

“We have four or five (tools) in our plan that encourage (more diverse and affordable housing … but we’re not seeing developers saying, ‘OK, I will also include this other idea that you as a community want,’” senior city planner Sarah Fox told planning commissioners in February. “It’s not required, so it’s just not attractive to them to want to include it in their plan.”

A few planning commissioners seemed less than enthusiastic about changing the status quo and requiring developers to include more diverse or affordable housing. They wanted to see more proof that the city’s voluntary programs, which offer tax rebates in exchange for these “inclusionary” building practices, are not working. 

Fox, who sees the “other side” of city politics in her role as a Vancouver City Council member, will likely return to the planning commission armed with more data and examples, but it would be nice to see these Camas officials do a bit of their own research. 

If they did, they may discover that hundreds of other city officials, including those in nearby Portland, also have wondered if making inclusionary zoning mandatory was worth it. The answer seems to be a resounding “yes.” 

Just look at Cambridge, Massachusetts: that city’s voluntary inclusionary zoning rules produced zero affordable housing units over a decade, but after switching to a mandatory program in 1999, the city saw nearly 200 affordable units built within just five years. 

The same proved true in Irvine, California, where the city’s mandatory inclusionary zoning policy helped build 6,389 affordable units in four years, but dramatically dropped to 952 affordable units built over 11 years when the city switched to a voluntary policy. 

Camas city officials also should immerse themselves in the reality of what happens when a city’s affordable housing inventory dries up. At the Feb. 17 planning commission meeting, at least one commissioner questioned if there were really people experiencing homelessness in Camas. We would point that commissioner and others questioning whether homelessness is “a Camas issue” to a few articles published in the Post-Record: 

  • A Sept. 5, 2019, article published in the Post-Record, “As homelessness climbs in Camas, resource center helps struggling families,” noted that the Camas School District counted its highest number of homeless families — around 80 — during the 2018-19 school year. Most were living with other families, in RVs or in cars, but as many as 30 of these students were, according to a school district employee who helps find resources for homeless families, “unaccompanied, homeless teens.” 
  • In a Feb. 8, 2018 article, “Downtown Camas merchants say homelessness on the rise,” the executive director of the Council for the Homeless points out that increasing rents in places like Camas are pushing many families and individuals into homelessness, including seniors on fixed incomes who can no longer afford increases to their housing costs. In Clark County, more than half of those considered homeless are families, she added, noting, “Homeless doesn’t discriminate. It can affect anyone.” 
  • More recently, in an article published on June 4, 2020, about the Camas-Washougal Community Chest’s reallocation of grants, the nonprofit’s co-president said: “The closure of schools and associated loss of food security for children, combined with the increase in unemployment and impact of the illness itself has had a devastating effect on our community. The Community Chest knew that we had to act.”

While issues of homelessness and food insecurity (sometimes due to families paying far more than 30 percent of their income on housing) are often invisible in towns like Camas, those working behind the scenes at places like the school district’s Family-Community Resource Center and the Community Chest know how real these problems are for many local individuals and families. 

City leaders have a chance to act now to help stem Camas’ affordable housing crisis, make the city more welcoming to all families in the future and ensure that the city keeps that “small-town feel,” but it will take a willingness to really listen to city planners and housing consultants who know which policies make a difference — and which policies just look good on paper — and open their eyes to a new way of doing things.