You’ve probably all heard by now that the Corvalla Apartment complex is closing its doors for upscale remodeling, leaving many low income tenants and families homeless without options. We all see how contentious this has been, not to mention heart-wrenching, but this story is part of a larger problem that the Corvallis community is currently facing. What we’re seeing here will almost certainly become a trend if our community doesn’t decide what it wants and act upon it. In other words, are we willing to welcome new housing development, even in our own backyards at times, or not?
What’s Happened So Far
The Corvalla Apartments have been until now a modest complex of one-, two-, and three-bedroom units available in the $500 to $700 range. The complex has recently changed hands and the new owner, Riverside Residential Group, plans to renovate and take the complex in a more upscale direction, with monthly rents ranging from about $750 to over $1,000. They are evicting the current tenants to get the work done; once complete, these more spendy units will be marketed as The Park at Fifth.
Many of the current tenants are lower income, some receive disability benefits or assistance from HUD, and they will not likely be able to return to their current homes once renovated. Some are fighting their evictions, but it can be anticipated that most all the tenants will be out by the end of February. Also predictable, some will simply not be able to find housing in Corvallis’ currently tight and somewhat expensive inventory of available spaces.
The Coming Story; What You May Not Want to Know
Corvalla may represent some of the first casualties of an endangered species here in Corvallis; the older and plainer, but serviceable rental unit. Our city is replete with these older buildings and federal tax laws make regular buying and selling of these complexes attractive for landlords, so this will probably not be the last time our fair burb sees this happen.
In fact, what we may be witnessing is the gentrification of Corvallis. Most of the newer units that have been built attract top rents and lower cost units are already in dramatically short supply.
Take one large demographic that already struggles to find affordable rent, students. Right now, OSU is home to about 28,000 of them. In 1997 that number was barely over 14,000; the current rate of change is estimated at around a 6-percent increase per year. According to the Corvallis Community Development department, only 1,658 units have been built in terms of multi-housing buildings… since 2001. And a third of those were built in that year. Our housing expansion hasn’t even come close to compensating for OSU’s growth, let alone the rest of those that have relocated here. And despite being often maligned, OSU seems to contribute to this town far more than it takes from it. For proof, just take a look at any other Oregon city of similar size that doesn’t have a world class university. First, there is the incalculable cultural benefit the university offers, but more concretely, our employment rates are higher, and our property values are most definitely higher.
Just in terms of this one example, it seems almost certain that this problem will get worse before it gets better, if it gets better.
Do We Even Want This To Get Better?
Supply and demand being what it is means Corvallis can anticipate increasing real estate values, and the more souls looking the loftier those values will climb — especially if supply stays about as short as it is. This all sounds pretty good if you already own property here. But, it may not be so helpful if you’re lower income.
For instance, it is not only students and people on assistance that would hope for affordable housing here; the Corvallis children that are growing up right now may one day find that striking out on their own positions with no option besides leaving their hometown. Also among our current residents are lower income workers that contribute to our economy. We could reach a point where living anywhere here requires a yearly income of $50,000 or more. The ramifications for property values, entrepreneurs and even the tax base could be said to have some benefits in this instance, but is that what we Corvallisites actually want?
Do the benefits outweigh the disadvantages? One can envision massive numbers of people commuting in and out of Corvallis for work as our economy grows, but rental opportunities are nowhere to be found. Families could wind up needing to live quite a bit further from one another.
The NIMBY, the Prius and the Unsaid
Truthfully, it is far easier to wish for a solution than to sacrifice for one. So many of us love this town and feel a substantial affinity to the neighborhoods we live in, so when the prospects of a housing development comes along we often gather and protest the NIMBY protest… Yes, but Not In My Backyard. This makes a solution here difficult, especially in a town dedicated to the sort of infill development that helps us to remain a compact city.
We are also a city that seems to care for the people around us and that makes all this even more difficult, because to really care for them probably means we will need to more proactively embrace new housing development. Of course there are environmental concerns, but it is also the case that the closer people are to work and school the more sustainably they can live.
So, the question may come down to this — will we be that Prius driver that slows our roll down enough to actually benefit from the car, or are we that individual that bought that Prius because it sounded like the right thing to do, but we still gun the thing in the never ending race between stoplights?
The one option that does not seem to be available is to simply pine for the human thrush into Corvallis to simply abate, and it may be a nice sentiment to some, but at this point it is probably little more than a form of magical thinking and denial.
In the final analysis, we are where we are, supply and demand is what it is and the question remains… gentrification or a less jaded view of development? The questions and answers are easy, the details are starkly difficult.