Housing Vacancy in Northwest Oregon

by Erik Knoder

March 30, 2017

A shortage of housing is once again a topic of conversation in Northwest Oregon. This was also a hot topic in 2007, just before housing became much more plentiful and affordable. One aspect of the conversation is the amount of vacant housing in the region, and Northwest Oregon does, in fact, have a lot of vacant housing.
Statewide about 10 percent of Oregon’s housing units were vacant. This is an average from the years 2011 through 2015. In Northwest Oregon about 23 percent of housing units were vacant during these years, or more than twice the level of vacancy for the state as a whole. There were considerable differences between the vacancy rates of the five counties in Northwest Oregon.

Benton County had the lowest rate at nearly 9 percent vacancy. This fits well with the expansion of student enrollment at Oregon State University going on during this time and the shortage of student housing in Corvallis. At the other extreme was Tillamook County with 45 percent vacancy. Tillamook County is fairly close to the Portland metro area, rural in nature, and has a beautiful coastline – it’s the perfect place for a vacation home. In fact, all three coastal counties, Clatsop, Lincoln, and Tillamook, had unusually high vacancy rates. The high rates were all due largely to the prevalence of vacation homes. We know this because the Census also asks owners why their housing is vacant.

As with overall vacancy rates, Benton and Columbia counties had small proportions of their vacant housing reserved for seasonal, recreational, or occasional use. In the coastal counties, however, these were the primary reasons for vacant housing. Clatsop County had an estimated 3,831 vacant housing units due to seasonal, recreational, or occasional use. Tillamook County had 7,290 such units, and Lincoln County had 8,053 units. The prevalence of vacation homes along the coast is what explains the apparent contradiction of having high vacancy rates and housing shortages in the same area.

It is true that if vacant units in coastal counties could all be occupied, it would reduce or eliminate housing shortages for residents. On the other hand, demand for vacation homes supports the residential construction industry. Visitors also support local economies through their purchases while using their vacation homes. Another possible advantage, for local governments, is that vacation-home owners pay property taxes at the same rate as full-time residents, but may not require the same level of services. People aren’t using roads, bridges, schools, or libraries from housing units that are unoccupied.
Despite some economic benefits, housing, vacancy and vacation homes are contentious issues on the Oregon Coast. Employers lament the lack of affordable workforce housing, and residents are often divided about the desirability of vacation rental housing. The practice of buying housing on the coast and renting it out for short-term vacations is a significant part of what drives the seasonal, recreational, or occasional use in these counties. The housing shortage is a serious economic issue for Northwest Oregon, but the flip side is more of a bright note: it means that many people want to be here, and in the long run that promotes growth for the region’s economy.

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