An aging population, economic decline and generational poverty have contributed to Coos Bay-area housing issues

By Emily Green | Original Article
June 1, 2018

Charles Buki wasn’t in Coos County to placate its residents.

“You need to get your shit together,” he told a banquet room full of locals at their highly-anticipated housing summit on April 26.

The Virginia-based consultant and his business partner, Thomas Eddington, had just spent the previous hour explaining to the audience that Coos County’s housing crisis hinged, in part, on the community’s overall attitude.

“I don’t know what happened, but somewhere in the last 40 years, you stopped having pride,” Buki said as he flipped through slides that illustrated his point with photos of dilapidated houses and overgrown landscaping. After clicking through a few additional snapshots, he added, “There are a number of folks here who have never been taught; don’t park your car on the lawn.”

This drew laughter from the audience, as did his comments about noticing a lot of large men in motorcycle leathers and white women with tattoos.

Dilapidated homes in Coos County.

The transformation of the site where the casino sits is emblematic of how this south-central portion of Oregon’s coast has changed over the past four decades. Between 1950 and 1989, the bay-front property was home to a giant Weyerhaeuser Co. shipping center and sawmill, where one of the largest green chains in the nation once pulled trees. Six years after the mill shut down, Coquille Indian Tribe turned what remained of the facility into a casino and later purchased the rest of the 53-acre plot so it could add an expansive parking lot, hotel and RV park.The housing summit took place at The Mill Casino in North Bend, a town of about 9,800 residents that borders Coos Bay, not quite twice its size, to the north.

Whereas the area’s mid-century boom spanned about 30 years, when salmon fishing and timber jobs were plentiful, since the mid-1980s, Coos County has been stuck in a listless economic rut.

Today the casino is among the county’s largest private employers, along with Walmart, the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, medical facilities, area schools and a call center. Roseburg Forest Products, which operates a shipping terminal on the bay, is the only lumber company that still employs more than 250 people.

The casino in Coos County.

“I spent my summers all through college and law school working in mills and in the woods logging,” said Mike Lehman, a lifelong resident and former state representative for Coos Bay.

“It was a vibrant economy, very blue collar,” he said. “In the mornings, the streets were filled with busloads of workers going to the mills to log, and I watched as that slowly went down, along with impacts to the fishing industry and everything else. It always strikes me as 1980 when it really started crumbling.”

Lehman said while timber jobs have declined, the industry is still alive in Coos Bay, although it’s become so automated that production now takes a third of the workforce it once did. There are also fewer mills now than in the county’s 1970s heyday.

Docked in the bay that week was a giant cargo ship stacked high with logs headed for China where they would be milled and sold.

The decline of the resource-based economy in the Coos Bay area has led to a long-term collective depression among many families that once relied on those industries for work, said Tara Johnson, director at The Devereux Center.

“I think that a lot of problems stem from long-term, generational poverty,” she said. “There are also issues that go hand in hand with that, of mental and emotional detachment and inability to figure out how to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

While her nonprofit focuses on helping people who are homeless, she said many of the housed people that stop in for resources are just as discouraged as those living in tents. “That same despair is there. We don’t have a lot of good paying jobs,” she said.

The median household income in the county is about $39,000 – substantially less than the statewide median household income of about $57,500.

When a family slips deeply into poverty and the parents give up, alcohol and drug abuse come in and then there’s no one to set a good example for the next generation. This was a problem echoed up and down the coast by service providers. They said the idea that former loggers and seafood-industry workers could be retrained in tourism jobs is a joke.

“You’re not going to take these very independent, tough talking and rough talking people and put them down as a maître d’ in a restaurant,” said Lehman, laughing.

But with the decline of those industries now more than 30 years passed – many residents at the summit began to hoot, holler and cheer when North Bend City Councilor Timm Slater told the room that pride was important, “and part of that is let’s drop the attitude of being a victim.”

But embracing service-industry and retail jobs is not necessarily the answer. Johnson said she assists people employed in those sectors who feel like no matter how hard they work, they just can’t get ahead.

Melinda Torres, homeless liaison for the Coos Bay School District, said she watches her students fall into the same fast food and retail jobs their parents worked because, just like their parents, they don’t have the skills to do anything else.

A shrinking workforce and stagnant incomes that, for the past few decades, have stemmed primarily from jobs in the hospitality industry, Coos County residents are facing their own, unique housing predicament.

A dilapidated house in Coos County.

Vacancy rates are higher than in many areas of Oregon, hovering around 3 percent for ownership and 7 percent for rentals, according to Buki and Eddington’s analysis. Fifteen percent of all housing units are considered vacant – they just aren’t all available because they’re vacation homes or they’re unfit for occupancy.

“I’m not sure you have an affordability problem,” Buki told housing summit attendees. “What you have is a crappy stock problem – and a poverty problem that adds up and conspires to have lots of good stuff above $300,000 and very few good options below $200,000.”

Lehman agrees: “We have a lot of crappy rentals. That’s one of the common complaints you hear, ‘I’m paying good money and it’s sketchy.’”


Nowhere to go 
but home

A main driver of Coos County’s housing shortfall is the aging face of the community.

While the population has remained relatively level in number, its median age has increased markedly from age 43 to age 48 since 2000.

Residents who are young enough to have children make up the smallest demographic, with Millennials comprising just 14 percent of the population in 2016. More than 2,000 of them have left Coos County to put down roots and raise their children elsewhere over the past 18 years.

Meanwhile, Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation have grown to encompass 64 percent of the population. Whereas the nation’s Baby Boomer population as a whole is shrinking as its members move into retirement and the great beyond, in Coos County, their numbers have actually increased in recent years.

A man participating in a community exercise.

Lehman said Coos Bay’s Marshfield High School has about half the student body that it did when he graduated from it in 1971, even though the town’s population has grown.

The nationwide decline in residential care facilities and nursing homes, along with longer lifespans, have resulted in a greater percentage of elderly residents aging in place across many American communities.

With no new affordably-priced houses on the market, it creates a choke point in system: The elderly don’t downsize and stay in place longer, keeping their homes off the market and unavailable for people looking for their second home. And because those people are not moving out of their first homes, there is nothing available for first-time homebuyers.

In coastal areas, where many elderly flock for their golden years, this phenomenon is only exacerbated – although the increase in median age is more largely attributed to locals aging in place than beach-seeking seniors on the move.

When the elderly do move or pass away, their homes are often so outdated and falling apart, they’re undesirable or unsafe.

Buki hammered-in his point about the plethora of dated, avocado-green-furnished houses so much that when Slater, the North Bend city councilor, took the stage, he began as if it were a confessional. “Hi, my name is Timm, and I bought my house in 1978.”


A collective crisis

Most agree that finding suitable housing began to be an issue about 10 years ago – following the Great Recession. It only became a hot topic in recent years, however, as homelessness grew more visible and consensus built among employers that’s its tough to retain out-of-town recruits when they can’t find a place to live.

When Marka Turner moved to the region three years ago from Nevada with her husband, three kids and small dog, she said, “we could not find anything.”

She had taken a job as the executive director of the North Bend City/Coos-Curry Housing Authorities and temporarily rented the agency’s former director’s vacant home, while he was in the process of selling it, before moving into a hotel. “We ended up buying, it was easier than trying to rent something,” she said.

Turner purchased a house in Bandon, where the housing stock is in a better state of repair than in the Coos Bay-North Bend area where her office is located.

“I know $300,000 may not sound like a lot coming out of Portland, but paying $300,000 and then needing to put another $50,000 or $100,000 into it to upgrade stuff, was very discouraging,” she said. “And that’s the story you will hear a lot from other professionals, businesses: People won’t come here – they can’t find housing. In Curry County, I know people who were in an RV for six months until something became available.”

On the bright side, she said, because the problem has become so bad for so many people, momentum to actually do something about it is building.

Barbara Green moved to Coos Bay from Portland’s hot real estate market with her family in 2014, and she was surprised by how difficult it was to find a home – not just one she could afford, but a home that was available in general. Green, like Turner, had moved for a job. Her family lived with her brother-in-law for three months until they were able to secure a small 2-bedroom home in a less-than-desirable part of town. Green said everyone warned her not to move into that neighborhood, but after living east of 82nd Avenue in Portland, she said she wasn’t too worried about Coos Bay’s “worst part of town.”

Having lived in Coos County all his life, Lehman said he’s had his current home for years and never had any trouble securing housing, personally. His grown children and some of his colleagues, however, have found finding decent living quarters challenging.

After spending much of his career as an attorney, in the private sector and as a state lawmaker, Lehman now heads Oregon Coast Community Action, the area’s primary social-service provider, as he nears retirement.

“I have struggled here, when I’ve hired some middle-income positions,” he said. “They’ve struggled to find someplace to live. In fact, we lost somebody because they couldn’t find anyplace. They headed back to Nevada.”

In light of this growing problem, the county convened a housing task force, which decided that step one should be to figure out exactly what was causing the housing shortage that everyone was talking about – and what tactics could be employed to fix it.

Area businesses, nonprofits and government agencies collaborated to hire Buki’s consulting company, czbLLC, to conduct this analysis and create the report that the housing summit at the casino was centered on.

czb, an urban planning firm, determined that much of the housing was run-down, uninhabitable, vacant, boarded-up or otherwise appeared abandoned. This, the consultants said, is not only a sign that people in the area lack pride, but it also repels economic investment from outside interests.

Logs in Coos County.

Coos Bay and North Bend make up the largest population center in Coos County. They are a couple miles inland, situated around the bay rather than along the ocean, like most coastal communities Street Roots visited for this series on rural housing.

Given their location, they have not encountered the massive transition of housing into the vacation rental market, however they are not unscathed. There is a growing awareness of the area’s natural beauty, and it’s long been a hunting, fishing and crabbing destination. Although locals say that these days, they’re seeing more kayakers, surfers and stand-up paddle boarders than hunters.

Bandon, on the other hand, which lies about 24 miles south of Coos Bay and is home to the world-famous Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, also lies in Coos County and is a popular tourist destination. While it’s a 30-minute drive away, many people who work in Coos Bay, like Turner and Torres, live in Bandon.

Buki and Eddington determined that between 2000 and 2016, the number of single family homes in Coos County that are either vacant or vacation rentals increased by nearly 1,400 – that’s a 77 percent jump.

They also concluded that renters with low incomes are solving the availability issue in one of three ways: they take low-quality units, which are often substandard in a market where there is little incentive for landlords to make improvements; they double up with other renters; or they become cost burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. The analysis found that becoming cost-burdened is what 90 percent of low-income renters in Coos County have done.

“We have a huge population that’s spending 50 percent or more of their income just to have a place to live,” said Lehman, explaining that this forces families to make decisions about whether to pay for rent, food, health care or transportation.

The findings of czb’s housing study are apparent to those passing through North Bend and Coos Bay on Highway 101. Neighborhoods are a patchwork of well-manicured homes mixed with inhabited-but-neglected properties where the paint is chipping away and weeds reach up to the windows.

Outside of downtown Coos Bay and North Bend’s urban renewal districts, where façade improvement programs have helped businesses spruce up their exteriors to create what are now appealing main streets, the buildings that house many non-touristy businesses are in need of a good spray wash, updated signage and a fresh coat of paint.

“You have a lot of houses that look like crap,” Buki told attendees. “And that is not an income issue, that’s a pride issue.”

He argued that it takes very little capital to mow the lawn, plant geraniums and touch-up exterior paint.

Outsiders considering deals that could boost the area’s flat economy would look for reasons to invest in the community when and if they visit, he said.

“This is what we see,” he said as he pointed up at an image of a battered and boarded-up duplex surrounded with dandelions gone to seed. “This is your welcome mat.”


A growing divide

There is new construction taking place, it’s just not within the economic reach of most locals, and the number of new homes built each year has dropped from an average of 401 between 1950 and 2010, to 73 in the years since.

Wetland water issues in the area, along with high construction costs, the decline of the local construction industry, miles of red tape built into local zoning and building codes, and high development fees, all make building working-class homes in Coos County unattractive, especially when you can build vacation homes for close to the same amount and sell them for much more.

The disparity is most visible on the drive south on Highway 540 to nearby Bastendorff Beach. Along the way is one distressed trailer park after another on the east side of the highway, and sitting opposite, are half-million-dollar mini-mansion vacation homes that overlook the bay to the west.

What’s become a challenge for the shrinking middle-class is an all-out disaster for the county’s low-income, elderly and disabled residents.

Johnson said any negative mark on a background check makes finding housing nearly impossible, from bad credit, having an eviction or criminal record, or even being a clean-cut young adult with no rental history. “So heaven help you if you’re homeless and not clean cut,” she said.

But oddly, the public housing wait lists in Coos County are relatively short – just one year. Many Oregon counties have wait lists in excess of three years. And even with a waitlist, the housing authority’s director, Turner, said she often has trouble filling vacant apartments.

She said she often goes through 10 to 30 people on the list before she’ll find someone who will take one of the agency’s apartments or duplexes in its well-maintained public housing complexes.

In some cases, people seeking assistance are already housed and simply want to stay where they are rather than take the option they’ve been given. It might not be in the town where they work or it might not be as roomy as they would like, explained Turner. In those cases, they remain on the list until something else pops up.

With housing vouchers, which renters can use toward rent at market rate units of their choice, it’s a different story. Tuner said the housing authority usually pulls 100 people off the wait list. Half respond, and of those, only half complete all the necessary paperwork. All in all, she said, there are only 12 or 15 percent who actually find a place available that will rent to them.

“We see this massive lack of follow through. Maybe some people cannot help themselves. It could be the health of the community – for so long, everything has just sort of been given,” she said. “I’ve done housing for 12 years. It’s a very interesting dynamic here.”

She said 83 percent of her voucher program recipients are elderly or disabled, and even for those who do everything they can to secure housing, it can still be a challenge to find a landlord willing to rent to a voucher-holder when there are other potential tenants. It’s also a challenge to find housing that is up to code and qualifies for the assistance.

For those who provide services at South Coast Community Action, it’s just a cycle of sending people out with the promise of providing rental assistance, only to never see them again because they couldn’t find anywhere they could spend it, said Lehman. “That’s our process, and it’s terrible,” he said.


Building confidence 
and housing

Given the demographic cliff facing the community, Buki explained if nothing were done to solve the housing crisis, it would fix itself in 15 years. That’s because with few young people and families, the countywide population – more than half of which is 55 or older – will eventually drop steeply from 63,000 as older residents pass away. An abundance of increasingly crappy houses will be available but, he said, “your affordability problems as they are today will go down.”

Coos County residents know they will not be able to solve their housing problems without addressing the overall health and well-being of their community.

Low educational attainment and the looming threat of widespread disinvestment from all areas that aren’t waterfront seriously threaten the county’s future viability.

They need living-wage jobs and additional trade skills-training programs. But, if the county is successful in attracting new employers, and if the new jobs attract skilled workers from outside the community, they will have nowhere to live. The economic and housing problems go hand in hand, and must be addressed simultaneously.

Buki and Eddington were only hired to look at the housing question, but they acknowledged the connection. What they offered up was a partial solution that came with a price tag of about $1 million a year, for 10 years.

They said if the community diversified funding – getting most of the money from the private sector, nonprofits, the medical community, schools and in donations from residents – they wouldn’t be constrained in the way that government-funded housing dollars would constrain them. They could use the funding to strategically rehab 120 old units on streets where it would count, while also building about 120 new units, all over the next decade.

It’s a plan that’s in line with what the consultants said they’d seen similar-sized communities do in the past, and would be enough to loosen what they described as the area’s “stuck market.”

Ten million dollars may seem like an astronomical amount for a rural area, but Coos County has spent $6.3 million on urban renewal projects over the past four years, and czb figured the county’s contribution to the project should be just $300,000 annually from the general fund.

In its final report, which it released a couple weeks after the summit, czb also recommended alternative solutions, including a housing bond and the implementation of more employer-funded housing programs.

The Bandon Dunes Golf Resort already has its own employee-housing complex, and Buki and Eddington see opportunities for other large area employers to step up and provide housing for their predominantly low-wage workers, as well.

Along with code and zoning revisions, starting a housing trust and other ideas for funding, building and rehabbing housing, czb also suggested taking advantage of the Jordan Cove LNG project to get housing built.

In a county in dire need of an economic boost, everyone Street Roots spoke with about the massive natural gas pipeline project said they thought Coos Bay’s population was pretty evenly split on the idea. Either residents want the jobs it would bring, or they believe the project will harm the environment and natural beauty of the bay, along with all the tourism jobs that environment creates.

According to the Jordan Cove LNG website, during construction, Pembina will employ an average of 900 workers, with up to 2,100 workers during peak construction. Theories on what the workers will do for housing vary. There’s been talk of workers staying in motels and campsites, and the company has proposed building its own temporary housing for construction workers, should the project come to fruition. At the completion of the construction phase, the temporary housing would be torn down.

Where the 175 permanent employees will live has not been publicly addressed. Buki and Eddington think North Bend should negotiate a contractual agreement for 20 percent of the workforce housing to be permanent and donated back to the county upon the project’s completion.

While discussions about the implementation of the housing report recommendations will resume in the fall, locals participating in the brainstorming sessions at the housing summit honed in on rebuilding pride.

Ideas such as investments in programs to assist elderly residents with yard work were suggested, along with finding funds for exterior maintenance and additional code enforcement officers to both enforce codes and gently remind homeowners of their responsibilities, depending on their financial means and the seriousness of their property violation.

Someone mentioned replicating Myrtle Point’s block-by-block program. Myrtle Point is located in Coos County about 20 miles east of Bandon. While it fizzled out about four years ago, the city government used to challenge its citizens to beautify their neighborhoods by maintaining their homes, making landscaping improvements and encouraging their neighbors to do the same. The most improved block would win a block party.

Community partners across the county paid czb $61,500 for its services, with Jordan Cove’s contribution falling into the $1,000 to $5,000 category. Other contributors included local government and tribal bodies, Wild Rivers Coast Alliance and United Way of Southwestern Oregon, which took a lead position in organizing the effort.

The day after the housing summit, North Bend Police Chief Robert Kappelman posted to his department’s Facebook page a before and after photo of a house that had been freshly painted and the front yard newly landscaped.

“Our little community has its misgivings, like every other city. However, one thing this community has is pride … although you wouldn’t know it as you take a city tour,” Kappelman wrote. “It doesn’t take a lot of money to make some significant improvements. A gallon of paint is less than $20, a quart less than $5. A pack of flowers is often less than $3. … Have neighbors that have trouble keeping up with their yards? Ask them if you can give them a little help.”

In the comments section below the post, North Bend resident Matthew Hays wrote, “Someone went to the summit … already workin’ on my curb appeal, boys.”