First in a four-part series examining the housing shortage in the John Day River Territory
In 2015, the theme for Condon’s Fourth of July Celebration was “All Roads Lead Home.” In an effort to bring alumni back to the area, the Condon Chamber of Commerce started the “Come Home to Condon Campaign.” Targeting people that had grown up in the area and who had then moved to larger towns and cities, the campaign sought to bring more Condon natives and young families back home.
For decades, people in the John Day River Territory have dreamed of days gone by – when towns like Condon, Fossil and Moro bustled with commercial buildings at 100% occupancy, schools full of children, standing-room-only basketball games, and a cultural vibrancy that was unique to each town and community.
The slow decline of rural populations across the United States and indeed the world is well known. Automation in farming, smaller families, environmental regulation, and the decline of the timber industry – all contributed to fewer people living in the region.
As populations shrunk in Gilliam, Wheeler and Sherman counties – a vicious cycle emerged: vacant homes, vacant lots, and vacant commercial buildings. The appearance of a town in decline is a hard thing to shake. Creating growth and luring young families back is made more difficult when stores are shuttered and homes are dilapidated and empty.
But much has changed recently, just in the past fifteen months.
The COVID-19 pandemic, urban decline, social unrest, wage stagnation and the ever-rising cost-of-living is driving young families out of cities and suburbs.
Now, instead of wishing for another Kinzua or large employer to come along, the lifestyle and close-knit community is bringing people home. A window is open. Employers have become accustomed to remote work. With high-speed internet in the cities of all three counties, working from home has never been easier.
The challenge that each town and county is now wrestling with is how to accommodate such families. The housing inventory in the region is incredibly tight. A home that goes to market typically has several interested buyers before it is even listed, says Linda Tatone-Smith, a local realtor.
Furthermore, existing homes in the area are some of the oldest in the West. A remarkable 43% of the homes in Condon were built before 1939, according to the 2010 US Census and housing data from Claritas, a private equity firm. The average for the state of Oregon is just 11% and nationally, just 13% of homes were built before World War II.
Dedicated people at the city, county, state, and federal level are working to address the housing shortage. But for young families like Mark and DaiLene Wilson, solutions couldn’t come fast enough.
Mark Wilson and DaiLene (Selby) Wilson grew up in Condon. For the past ten years they lived outside of Hillsboro. Mark works for KeyBank and before the pandemic, worked mobile and out of different branches in the valley. DaiLene was a dental hygienist and worked in Forest Grove.
Mark says that he and DaiLene often talked of moving home. “We had thought about moving back home for quite a while to get the kids closer to family, community and smaller classrooms, but it was not feasible with either of our careers and the kids extra -curricular activities.”
But this changed in the spring of 2020 as COVID restrictions required Mark to work from home and for DaiLene to help teach their two children, who were doing online learning. “Since I was already working from home, we were very open to moving back temporarily so the kids could actually be in a classroom as we knew it was not going to happen in Hillsboro,” Wilson said. “Once we got word that the Condon School was going to be open, we packed what we needed for a couple of weeks and moved in with Bob and Cindy Selby, thinking it would not be hard to find something if we wanted to stay long term.”
And stay they did. As lockdowns in the Portland area were extended, the Wilsons began to look for housing. Initially, Mark and DaiLene were looking to rent, which was not an easy task. A short-term rental was secured from October to January. “We didn’t think it would be so hard to find a place to live,” Mark said.
The couple bought a lot in town and began working with a local developer, Charlie Burdick with China Creek Construction. Now, the couple is waiting to build and like many others around the country, have seen costs skyrocket as the price of materials have risen exponentially.
Be that as it may, the Wilsons are happy to be back in their hometown and to raise their kids in Condon. “We are not alone in the challenge of finding housing, and with more people being able to work from home and not be tied to an office in a metro-area, there is a real opportunity to attract more families like ours to rural communities. Addressing the housing shortage will go a long way to bolstering a thriving community,” Mark told The Times-Journal.
In this series, we will continue to examine how towns, counties, developers, city planners, realtors, development corporations and elected officials are working to solve the region’s housing shortage.
In August, we will look at initiatives taken at the local level to get more buildable lots sold and how each town and county is approaching this puzzle. For example, the town of Moro recently summoned landowners who refuse to sell buildable lots to a special public meeting. The town of Condon recently acquired and sold the old baseball field to developer Amy Coy, who is also active in Sherman County. The town of Arlington is working to redo its Main Street and the owner of the Arlington Market is hoping to build townhomes in Arlington and in Condon.
We have interviews scheduled with local leaders that are working to find housing solutions. We also have interviews scheduled with US Congressman Cliff Bentz, Oregon State Senator Lynn Findley, Oregon Representative Greg Smith and Oregon Representative Daniel Bonham.
If you or someone you know has wanted to move to Gilliam, Wheeler or Sherman County but has been unable to find a rental or home to buy – we want to hear from you. Email us at email@example.com, reach out to us on Facebook or call (541) 384-2421.
This series will publish monthly – the next segment will be published on August 12th. The four-part series will finish in October. The Times-Journal will cover a number of topics and we look forward to hearing from our readers.