Beyond single-family: Camas’ housing market getting more diverse

Recent proposals include city's first cottage development, mixed-use building with 56 apartments in downtown Camas

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When the city of Camas completed its Housing Action Plan in early 2021, a few things were very clear: the city’s housing inventory — dominated by large, pricey, single-family homes — was quickly edging out many would-be Camasonians, including lower- to middle-income families, seniors on fixed-incomes and young adults just starting their careers.

The city’s plan showed the majority of houses built in Camas over the past decade were larger, single-family homes well beyond the price range of many first-time homebuyers or anyone earning less than 50 percent of Camas’ $101,000 median income.

“Lower income households are heavily impacted by a lack of affordability (in Camas),” the plan’s authors noted. “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.”

In 2019, just 5 percent of the city’s housing was considered multifamily, and Camas only had four homes under 800 square feet and about 15 accessory dwelling units (ADUs) located on single-family properties — all the types of housing that could provide some relief for people who didn’t want — or couldn’t afford — the typical 3,000-square-foot single-family house that had dominated Camas’ housing market for the past decade.

And while the city council still needs to consider which, if any, city planning tools included in the Housing Action Plan it would like to use to ensure Camas has more diverse and affordable housing over the next 10 years, there is some good housing news on the horizon: including two new housing proposals that would help diversify Camas’ housing supply.

The Cottages

A proposal to build 22 detached, smaller single-family homes on a 2.95-acre parcel located east of downtown Camas off Northeast Third Avenue is set to become Camas’ first cottage development.

On Dec. 16, 2021, Hearings Examiner Joe Turner approved the Washougal River Oaks developer’s request to change the property from a multifamily zone to multifamily cottage overlay zone.

“The Housing Action Plan, which we adopted this year, has strategies that identify the need to diversify (Camas’) housing types,” Camas Senior Planne Lauren Hollenbeck told Turner during the Dec. 16 hearing. “The multifamily cottage overlay really addresses one of those disparities by providing incentive to build smaller homes.”

Hollenbeck described the Washougal River Oaks project as “unique” and said the cottages would be the first of its type in Camas.

“The development’s concept of having front porches facing a common, open space gathering area promotes the opportunity for an interactive neighborhood in the community,” Hollenbeck added.

The developer, Bryan Desgrosellier, of the Vancouver-based Desgrosellier Development, Inc., said he was inspired by other cottage developments in the region, including the Salish Ponds Cottages, a 2001 development that sited 10 cedar-shingle cottages, ranging in size from 750 to 1,200 square feet, at the shore of a pond on a landscaped, 3-acre parcel located across the Columbia River from Camas in Fairview, Oregon. In a 2009 Oregonian article, Ross Chapin, the architect behind the Salish Ponds development, said he had seen a “shift in attitude” with more home buyers “realizing what is enough” and wanting to live in smaller-footprint homes that would save energy and lower the homeowners’ expenses.

Desgrosellier said he was charmed by the idea of building something similar in Camas.

“I’ve always been intrigued by cottage housing,” Desgrosellier said. “It can provide that diversity (the city is looking for) and meet an underserved market of people who don’t want to live in a condo or apartment.”

The site was challenging, Desgrosellier added, due to its steep slope on the property’s north end that made much of the site basically unbuildable. Instead, the developer plans to preserve the mature forested area on the site’s northern end and cluster the 22 cottage homes on the northern end.

Desgrosellier wanted the development to have a community feel.

“It’s a pretty tight site, but we’ve done the best we could to have a central gathering area,” he said. “All of the front porches face each other and there will be a small, central structure where people can gather and do yoga or barbecue. All of the cottages on the south end will face that. And we’ve integrated the swale with natural stone and a bridge over the top.”

The cottages will include seven two-bedroom, two-bathroom homes that have attached, rear-facing garages and driveways and a mix of one-bedroom, one-bathroom, 750-square-foot homes and two-bedroom, two-bathroom, 800-square-foot homes. Desgrosellier said he expects the cottages will be priced around $329,000 for the smallest units — less than half of what Zillow lists as the value of a typical Camas home ($692,787) as of February 2022.

“I’ve always liked the idea of infill developments that are unique and don’t have the traditional, boxy home look. I’ve never had any desire to go (build) a ton of homes on sprawling acres,” Desgrosellier said.

The developer said he had hoped to pull the cottage project together before now, but was stymied by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We bought the land in 2019 … and it has taken us a long time to put the whole plan together … but it’s a tremendous opportunity for us to build in Camas,” Desgrosellier said.

In February, Desgrosellier told The Post-Record he had “a little ways to go” before he could begin construction, but hoped the project would be underway this summer.

Mixed-use development in downtown Camas

A mixed-use development proposed for 404 N.E. Sixth Ave., could add nearly 4,500 square feet of ground-floor retail and three stories of housing with 56 apartments to downtown Camas.

Robert Maul, the city of Camas’ interim community development director, brought the proposal to the Camas City Council during a Feb. 22 workshop, and said the developers were interested in the city’s multifamily housing tax exemption code.

Passed by the Camas City Council in 2014, the multifamily housing tax exemption allows 8- to 12-year tax abatements for private, multifamily developments and redevelopments in the city’s downtown district that offer a certain percentage of affordable housing units “to accommodate future population growth, provide places to live close to employment, shopping, entertainment and transit services and encourage affordable housing where appropriate.”

The definition of “affordable housing” for the city’s multifamily tax-abatement program means housing costs, including monthly utilities other than telephone costs, are 30 percent or less than the household’s monthly income for “moderate-income households” that earn 80 to 115 percent of the county median income ($87,900 in 2020). The figures are adjusted throughout the tax-abatement period to adjust for increases or decreases in the Clark County median income.

The city granted a 12-year abatement to another mixed-use development in downtown Camas in 2019. That development, the Clara Flats, also located on Northeast Sixth Avenue, at Northeast Birch Street, offers ground-floor retail and 30 residential units, including six that are considered affordable.

The proposed mixed-use development at 404 N.E. Sixth Ave., would be 51 feet tall with four stories and “tuck-under,” onsite parking. Though the city’s downtown commercial zone has no height restrictions, the council set a height restriction of 45 feet when it passed its multifamily housing tax exemption code in 2014.

In February, the project applicant, Hudson East Living, LLC, asked the Camas City Council to consider modifying its chapter of the tax exemption that includes the 45-foot, three-story height restrictions.

Maul said he believed the council members had made the restriction in 2014 to help new developments fit in better aesthetically with other historic downtown uses, but that the city had no height restriction in its downtown commercial code.

On Feb. 22, the council members seemed amenable to considering a modification of the tax exemption code that would offer multifamily housing developers in the city’s downtown core and along other parts of Northeast Sixth Avenue and Northeast Third Avenue some flexibility. The council will hold a public hearing on the issue at a later date.

“I’m happy to see this application and project go forward,” said Camas Councilwoman Shannon Roberts on Feb. 22. “We need more housing, especially affordable housing … and if there’s no real reason to have the 45-foot height restriction, I don’t see a problem with that.”