Governor touts plan to help rural Oregon

A proposed boost in state funds to create more housing in rural areas of the state is a key priority for Gov. Kate Brown. (The Enterprise/File).

SALEM – Gov. Kate Brown says she understands the challenges Malheur County employers have in getting employees, and developing housing for those employees is a key element of her rural agenda.

She has proposed increased state spending to develop affordable housing and considers her Greater Oregon Housing Accelerator essential. From Ontario to Tillamook, Brown hears from workers who can’t find a place to live near employers.

“It’s a huge issue,” Brown said. “I hear that story everywhere.”

Brown reviewed progress on her rural agenda in an interview with the Malheur Enterprise in her Capitol office, just days before she headed for Ontario. She will appear at an Ontario Area Chamber of Commerce buffet breakfast at 8 a.m. Friday at the Clarion Inn. The event is open to anyone.

Then she is scheduled to meet this Friday with the Eastern Oregon Border Economic Development Region Board – the state board comprised of local people addressing county economic issues. The board itself has homed in on the need for more housing.

According to one state report, the need in Malheur County is profound. The state Housing and Community Services Department calculates that the mean wage for a Malheur County renter is $8.77 an hour but it takes a wage of $13.40 an hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment.

The county by 2014 was short nearly 1,000 rentals that could be afforded by those with low incomes.

Brown said her housing accelerator will “open doors to opportunity around the state” by helping communities develop housing for workers.

The program would start modestly, with $15 million budgeted if the Legislature agrees.

Brown said she’s certain she will get the money and is “cautiously optimistic” legislators will fund her other ambitious housing projects.

The $15 million could be used to build, buy or refurbish housing, back employer-assisted housing programs, and help communities evaluate what they need to do to provide such housing.

She noted state agencies are now involved in five pilot projects to see how such programs could work.

In Burns, local officials are studying housing needs in Harney County and then will plan how to fill the gaps.

In Lincoln County, Proud Ground is a project of local government and employers to subsidize the price of new home purchases. The state will help with eight home purchases.

In Pacific City, the parent of Pelican Brewing Co. is building housing to lease to employees, including workers who have to commute from out of the area.

In Donald, a local manufacturer has teamed up with city officials to upgrade local water and sewer utilities to open the way for 75 new homes.

In Warm Springs, the Jefferson County School District is renovating five old homes to provide housing for local teachers.

Brown said one of the state’s goals is to double the supply of affordable housing in rural areas. She also noted that Business Oregon, the state’s economic development agency, is increasingly focusing its resources on rural Oregon and that half its financing programs now target those areas.

She said she’s determined to make it easier for small businesses to succeed in rural Oregon with “cultures of entrepreneurship” backed by supportive state agencies.

Brown said developing a work force for rural employers would take a continued commitment to career education and science programs in schools. 

She said she is “adamant” about seeing state funding for such programs expand.

Brown said rural schools should get a base amount for such programs rather than gain state funding on a formula that gives every school the same amount per student.

“These programs are really expensive, so we need to see that the smaller schools can provide them,” Brown said.

She said such programs are proven to improve high school graduation rates.

Brown also said her proposal to expand rural broadband services would help schools as well. She cited a project in Dufur as an example.

In the rural school district southeast of The Dalles, Google funded installation of wifi services on three school buses.

Jack Henderson, Dufur school superintendent, said students spend as long as an hour on a bus getting to school.

He’s a fan of on-board wifi.

“It gives students great access to learning during a typically un-educational time,” Henderson wrote in an email. “I also love it for activities travel. We routinely travel over two hours one way to activities. This will give students the ability to take advantage of that time for academics.”

Brown said she also expects to focus more resources on water projects in the coming years, and she will announce this week her appointments to a new council that will study wildfire issues in Oregon.

The governor said she expects to get an update while in Ontario on the proposed Treasure Valley Reload Center, a railing shipping center proposed for Nyssa.

She deferred comment on legislation that would open up zoning in rural areas to more housing and development, proposals with support in Malheur County.

She said she is “still reviewing” such land use reforms.

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