COMMENTARY: Rural Oregon gets attention at big Portland summit

Rep. Lynn Findley (R-Vale). (The Enterprise/File)

PORTLAND – Lynn Findley got his 15 minutes of fame at an extraordinary gathering in Portland last week.

Findley, former Vale city manager who is now a state representative, took the stage to vent about Oregon’s treatment of rural issues.

His forum was the Oregon Leadership Summit, an annual gathering that pulls into one place all the forces of power in the state. More than 1,000 people were there – CEOs of major corporations, leaders of the state’s biggest nonprofits, and political leaders from U.S. senators to the governor.

Findley was there for the panel on rural perspectives on Oregon’s economy. He was partnered with state Rep. Caddy McKeown, a Democrat from Coos Bay.

Findley picked up on a major theme through the day – the challenge of limited affordable homes.

“In Malheur County, we’re having a tremendous problem with housing,” Findley said, his image projected on two giant screens as his voice boomed across the conference hall. “We have no affordable housing to speak of.”

He noted Malheur County built 23 homes at a time when Payette County put up 140 new homes.

Findley said the “one-size-fits-all” planning rules of the state are the villain.

“Developers just get tired,” Findley said. “They get wore out and go to Idaho and build houses.”

McKeown voiced the rural frustrations with Portland-centric politics.

“We want to be able to take care of ourselves and that’s very difficult when you live in a rural part of Oregon,” McKeown said.

Findley noted that legislators carved out a way for Malheur County to tackle the issues that hold back economic prosperity, opening the door for later legislation that could help. A local group identified the impediments and Findley pushed legislation concerning them.

“We tried to fix some of that stuff,” Findley said, but legislators didn’t pass some of those reforms.

“It’s kind of defeating,” Findley said.

Among those listening in the crowd was Riley Hill, Ontario’s mayor and a developer, as affordable housing emerged in one presentation after another as a continuing challenge across Oregon, not just in Malheur County. 

One economist, John Tapogna, noted that the state built 63 housing units for every 100 new households formed. That drives up rents and drives down the ability of people to pay for a place to live.

Tapogna, president of ECONorthwest, noted 153,000 households in Oregon spend more than 50% of their income on rent. That means, he said, that they are “one accident, one job loss” from ending up on the street.

“We have moral and economic imperatives to work on this housing affordability,” Tapogna said.


U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden hit the housing theme as well.

“The need for more low-income housing is extraordinary,” Wyden said. He said it was “morally wrong” that there are children in the state who are homeless. He told about a school bus routing through a state park on the coast to pick up students who were living in the campground.

Education also loomed as a key topic through the day. One speaker told how 65% of high school students went on to more education in 2010-2011. That dipped to 64% in 2016-17.

“Our education systems are failing our students today,” said Carmen Rubio, executive director of the Latino Network.

Anne Kubisch, president of the Ford Family Foundation, said communities that collaborate across social and ideological differences can succeed. Among those she cited was Adrian, with its long-term strategy, plans for sidewalks – and success getting football field lights.

She noted there is a “Latino revitalization” occurring in places across Oregon, including in Malheur County. Latino laborers who drive agriculture increasingly are settling in place, buying property and becoming part of the community.

“We need to embrace that,” Kubisch said.

While many presentations were sobering, there was an air of optimism. A bank president told of wondering what kind of housing his own employees could afford. He found employees at the low end of the bank pay scale couldn’t qualify to buy a home in the neighborhood where they lived. He challenged other business CEOs to dig in to the same analysis – and then act.

Across the day, threads of hope emerged. Smart, potent leaders suggested Oregon, including rural areas, can have good days ahead. Teaching students better. Embracing more trade with Asia. Using technology to allow commerce in any corner of Oregon.

Nobody went home saying “Problem solved.” Yet that room of 1,000 people left me feeling more optimistic that, despite political divides, Oregonians pulling together can reform and innovative to everyone’s benefit. Here in Malheur County, that’s an ambition that needs nurturing.

Les Zaitz: [email protected].

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