CLATSOP COUNTY — Housing is one of the main talking points for candidates vying for the District 5 seat on the Clatsop County Board of Commissioners in the May primary election.
District 5 is massive. It stretches from the southern part of Seaside to the Tillamook County line and east to include communities like Jewell and Elsie. As incumbent Lianne Thompson noted during a candidate forum earlier this month: It takes time to visit District 5’s constituents, let alone learn the ins and outs of the various communities represented.
That’s one reason Thompson believes voters should re-elect her to the District 5 seat. She’s put in the time, she says, and she has the experience.
A life-long community activist, Thompson points to her work in encouraging efforts to protect forest land around Arch Cape and in the push to improve broadband in rural parts of the county.
But challenger Steve Dillard also has a history in the area. He runs the Sandy Cove Inn in Seaside and owns three vacation rentals.
Both Thompson and Dillard share a concern over the North Coast’s housing woes. Portions of District 5 have long wrestled with the debate between vacation rentals and long-term housing.
Dillard is involved in the vacation rental industry, but he agrees that these types of rentals can drive up housing prices.
“It makes sense to me,” he said. “I’ve heard it for 15 years.”
But there is nuance to the argument.
“I’ve also heard other people say that there’s a distinction,” he said. “There are two different housing markets. The vacation rentals, like here in Seaside, (on) the west side of town, you can have vacation rentals, and they drew a line. In the east side of town, you can’t, and the markets are distinct and the one doesn’t inflate the other.”
Dillard says there can be solutions, through regulation, to help solve quality of life problems that some units generate. But he is not convinced that regulation needs to require something like a cap on the number of unites allowed.
The county commission is in the midst of deciding whether and how to restrict short-term rentals in unincorporated Clatsop County.
Dillard says the region needs to also build more housing through tools like increasing the density of housing allowed on existing lots.
“There’s even height restrictions, which, again, makes for a wonderful place to live,” he said, “but if we’re going to get more people in this area which is geographically constrained, we’re going to need to come up with other solutions.”
The twin issue of homelessness is also on Dillard and Thompson’s minds.
Clatsop County has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the state, but like many other people, Thompson isn’t sure why.
“That’s the $64,000 dollar question, isn’t it,” she said. “It could be that we count better than anyone else. … I believe we’ve got a real problem and we’ve had it.”
One of the reasons she initially ran for election to the county commission in 2014 was because she wanted to work on housing issues. There was, and remains, a real need.
Thompson believes one reason for the North Coast’s housing problems is the rural nature of the county.
“The state agency that channels most of the state and federal money is geared toward applications from developers,” she argued. “Well, developers can make more money more easily in the area of workforce housing and other kinds of public housing along the I-5 corridor.”
Dillard once managed transitional housing for homeless people and he’s learned from that: “Homelessness is a symptom. It’s about the many different reasons that people ended up without a house. Maybe it’s addiction. Maybe it’s somebody rolling out of prison and they’re not in the system anymore and how do they get back into the system.”
The county has other issues to address as well, but Thompson is especially proud of the way she says county government handled the coronavirus pandemic. The county has one of the lowest rates of virus-related deaths in Oregon and one of the highest vaccination rates.
“I would say something between admirable and extraordinary,” Thompson said. “We developed partnerships with the hospitals. We have a cadre of volunteers, We had community coordination during a time when our public health director left and we have a new one.”
But Dillard is critical of the county’s effort, saying lockdowns killed the economy.
Ballots for the May primary go out this week.