By editorial board • 

Affordable housing taking center stage in McMinnville

A popular bumper sticker in a popular Colorado resort town reads, “Salida: Where locals live in motels and tourist stay in houses.”

That’s a very real risk we face in McMinnville, as our wine-driven tourist cachet continues to blossom. We don’t want to eventually end up like Vail or Aspen, where billionaires begin brushing millionaires aside.

What’s been dubbed “The Paradise Paradox” dictates that resort towns tend to increasingly price the working class out of housing.

And the phenomenon is not limited to housekeepers, waiters, bartenders, cooks, baristas and their tourist trade co-workers. It extends to plumbers, cops, teachers, clerks, electricians, nurses, barbers and all the rest of the workers it takes to staff a full-service community.

A housing manager from one of Colorado’s tony ski venues put it this way: “A resort community that doesn’t house its workforce isn’t a community, it’s just a resort.”

That’s the kind of problem ski towns like Vail and Aspen are facing, and it doesn’t paint a very pretty picture. That’s true even for the resorts themselves, as they are finding themselves desperately short of workers, despite offering ever-escalating wages, benefits and incentives dictated by the market.

So, what can be done? What can the tourist industry do, what can units of local he government do, and most importantly, what can industry and government working in tandem do?

Let’s start with one clear admission: There’s no easy answer to any of the three elements of that question. As an industry publication recently observed in an article analyzing the problem:

“We all know what’s going on. The local governments know, the employees know. Everybody is thinking together, everybody is working toward something. But it’s a very complicated case.

“We all know it’s happening, but the road to a solution is much rockier than it seems. It is a real dilemma.”

For some perspective on the potential dimensions, consider Vail.

The posh Colorado resort town is nestled in Eagle County, where the median per capita income is $49,000 a year. But its median home price is approaching $1.5 million, and mountain commutes from distant points can be tasking during winter snow season.

The challenge also looms large in places like Sun Valley and Jackson Hole, Breckenridge and Park City, Tahoe and Telluride.

Many Sun Valley workers are forced to motor up steep mountain grades from Twin Falls, 85 miles to the south. It’s either that or join some of their brethren in cars, tents, campers or garages.

Several decades ago, Vail began incorporating deed restrictions into new developments in the interest of preserving affordable housing. However, it’s gotten to the point where deed-restricted one-bedroom condos are now commanding more than $1 million and two-bedroom units almost $2 million.

Affordable? Not on any working-class salary we’re familiar with.

This is inner-city Detroit in reverse. It’s wealth driving workers out instead of poverty.

Lack of affordable housing isn’t just a ski resort issue, either. It extends to mature wine industry meccas like California’s Napa, St. Helena, Calistoga and Yountville, and is already being felt locally in developing wine industry communities like McMinnville, Carlton and Dundee.

Tourism increasingly drives their economies. In the process, it creates both work and wealth in large measure.

One thing it doesn’t do, at least not in its pure market-driven form, is create housing for either the workers it directly employs, let alone those needed to provide other vital community services.

Local leaders have by no means been standing idly by. They have been plugging away at the problem, in one way or another, for many years.

That’s especially true in McMinnville, and a burgeoning homeless crisis has intensified the urgency in recent years.

Affordable housing has also taken center stage at the state level, becoming a central element in Tina Kotek’s gubernatorial campaign and legislative agenda. Everyone seems to realize we need to do a better job of housing people, both those who are working and those who are not.

That extends beyond resort communities, of course. But they often find themselves on the front lines as their growing wealth begins to make life increasingly untenable at the margins.

In stories the last two Tuesdays, city hall reporter Scott Unger framed the dimension of the problem locally and efforts to address it.

The stories show McMinnville is facing a projected population of 48,000 by 2041, and only two viable ways to cope — grow up or grow out. That is, either embrace higher densities to house more people on less land or sprawl out into the surrounding wine country serving as the region’s economic engine.

It’s not hard to see which way that’s going to go, given the political, economic and environmental forces invested in protecting the state’s agricultural heritage. Land costs play a huge role in driving housing costs higher, so higher density is essential in any event.

It bears noting that land is a finite commodity. No one is making any more of the stuff. No factories are churning it out, not even in China.

Even so, the city is projecting a need for 422 acres in the buildout to 48,000. It will almost inevitably end up settling for less, of course, and that has to be factored in as the city grapples with its future housing needs.

This week’s story zeroed in on a McMinnville Economic Vitality Leadership Council roundtable with Edlen & Co., a housing strategy consultant also working locally with Newberg and Dundee.

Principal Matt Edlen told the council that housing affordability has been eroding for decades all across the country. He said annual take home pay represented 57% of the cost of a home in 1962, but only 17% today, on average.

Therein lies the challenge.

Edlen’s menu of suggestions included relying to a much greater extent on housing manufactured off site. He said factories can produce houses for $140,000 to $180,000 and multi-family units for as little as $240,000.

One thing’s for sure. Continuing to plod along the same old path isn’t going to get the job done.

That’s what got us to the crisis point. It’s going to take some new approaches, preferably with the public and private sectors finding ways to work together in tandem.



I appreciate this op-ed, but I find the premise misleading. I don’t really see any major correlation between wine tourism and home prices. Less than 1% of homes are STRs. I also don’t see “rich outsiders” buying up a lot of homes and only visiting a few days a year. There might be a few, but not enough to make a large impact on pricing.

The issue is likely caused more by the cost of construction sky rocketing the last decade. It is impossible to buy or build a decent quality home for $200 sqft. Materials, lack of buildable land, labor costs all contribute way more than tourist.

Don Dix

If you own a home, look at the RMV of the lot on the recent property tax statement. In many cases, older homes are worth less than the property on which they are built (unless the home is somehow 'historical').

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