Construction crews work on the site of a 179-unit RV park in Ontario on Friday, July 16. (AUSTIN JOHNSON/The Enterprise)

ONTARIO - Expect to see more orange vests and hard hats around town.

From home renovations to new housing, Malheur County is under construction as builders take a chance in a high cost, high demand market. In June, the Malheur County Building Department issued its largest number of permits in a single month since 2015.

The total of 195 permits - excluding some in Ontario - is a 38% increase from June 2020.

Most of the permits were for plumbing and electrical work on existing properties, but a few were from new businesses.

Between January and June, Malheur County issued 13 new single-family dwelling permits outside Ontario.

The city of Ontario separately issued 178 permits between April and June - some for the same sites as the county permits - for projects valued at more than $35 million. Permits for new homes in the last six months have included 13 single-family homes, 70 townhouses and four duplexes, according to data from the city building department.

Dan Cummings, Ontario community development director, said much of the permit surge in Ontario comes from large-scale projects, including a new senior care facility on Arcata Way and a 179-unit RV park at 225 SE10th Street.

“Those are the big ones that boosted our revenue and market value,” Cummings said. “I attribute that to our housing incentive program.”

Since 2017, the City of Ontario Housing Incentive Program has paid a $10,000 cash incentive for building single-family owner-occupied homes on city land, or property that the city can annex.

“Most of the new housing I’m seeing is local people upgrading,” Cummings said. “But somebody must be buying.”

Construction site of the future Commercial Tire in Ontario on Friday, July 16. (AUSTIN JOHNSON/The Enterprise)

Home developers can also apply for incentives through the Oregon Community Foundation’s Eastern Oregon Border Board, including $6,000 for new owner-occupied homes and a property tax reimbursement for the homeowner of up to $1,500 annually for 10 years. 

Owners improving property within Malheur County’s border area with Idaho, excluding the Vale and Annex School Districts, can get up to $20,000 for increasing the taxable value of their property. 

Such repairs on existing properties make up most of the recent permits.

“I think most of it’s Covid related. Everybody’s at home,” said James Grissett of GHS Construction in Ontario. “It’s all of the handymen and the homeowners doing their side projects that they’ve been putting off for years.” 

Grissett is developing six townhouses and a triplex on North Oregon Street. but said the housing incentives are not the only factor compelling new construction.

“Housing is definitely needed in Ontario,” Grissett said. “If we want to bring people in, we have to build nice housing.”

High demand, a labor shortage and overbooked contractors have made construction more of a gamble. Grissett said that the cost of hiring workers has gone up, and developers are turning to subcontractors to find labor.

A shortage of building materials has hiked construction costs, too. For example, 1,000 board feet of lumber usually sells for around $300 but hit a peak of $1,700 in May, according to Markets Insider. Prices have since dropped by more than half from the peak but still remain high.

Grissett said that though he has had to delay some plans due to the high cost, he and other developers are taking the risk to build in Malheur County.

“Waiting isn’t going to fix the need for housing,” Grissett said.

News tip? Contact reporter Abbey McDonald at [email protected]

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