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Robbing the Prince to Pay the Pauper 

click to enlarge What if there were a golden egg, with the capacity to fund sorely needed projects, like affordable housing?

photo credit: Julia 2 Years Old March 2015-100 via photopin (license)

What if there were a golden egg, with the capacity to fund sorely needed projects, like affordable housing?

In our recent endorsement interview for Bend Park & Recreation District (BPRD) Board Position 1, we spent a good amount of time discussing "system development charges" (SDCs), a fee that housing developers pay toward Park District (and City) projects. Why so much attention to this topic? Because the City wants BPRD to join in offering exemptions to developers of affordable housing units. It's the City's newest approach to addressing the crisis-level shortage of housing in Bend.

And, while we appreciate the interest in taking action to increase the stock of affordable housing in Bend—particularly rentals—this tactic falls far short, and jeopardizes funding sources for important civic projects, like road repairs and public parks.

Instead, the City should focus on a range of solutions, like the proposed gas tax, which essentially puts the burden of solving problems more squarely on those creating them, rather than re-creating the kind of trade-offs lower income people are forced to make on a regular basis—pay the rent or buy groceries, keep the water on or refill a needed prescription. With a gas tax, the cost of fixing Bend's failing roads would be placed on drivers who run them down, and would be relative to their usage. (Contrarily, a proposed alternative that places a fee on residents' utility bills is incredibly misplaced in that it creates a potential hardship for those who may use the roads infrequently, if at all; like senior citizens.)

But even the more direct approach, coupling road usage to paying for its repair, is not enough to solve Bend's shortcomings in creating proper infrastructure to support its residents. A meager five cent per gallon tax, as proposed by City Council, would likely generate too little revenue to have a meaningful impact on the condition of our roads. No, instead of swiping nickels and dimes from the piggy banks dedicated to upkeep for streets and parks, why not consider a source of funds not already depleted?

At the risk of turning tourists into golden egg-laying geese, the surge in tourist activity and its boost to Transient Room Tax-funded projects seems ripe for exploring. In a time when vacation rentals are taking homes off the market for residents at an alarming rate, it seems appropriate that some type of tourist-funded fee be considered to support the development of affordable housing.

Last week, Visit Bend doled out grants to eight cultural organizations to help them generate marketing campaigns to support their activities—those funds had all been generated by the TRT. It is a perfect example of generating funds for residents and local organizations.

Likewise, the burden of the affordable housing crisis should rest, in part, on the shoulders of those pushing local residents out into a handful of expensive rentals, homeless shelters, and the streets—namely, tourists.

The TRT in Bend still lags far behind other cities. Two years ago, voters raised the TRT rate from 9 to 10.4 percent, but those numbers are still behind Boise (13 percent), Spokane (14 percent), Portland (14.5 percent), and Seattle (17 percent). That is a lot of public money being left untapped. (And, while some hotel owners bemoaned that the latest TRT increase would scare away tourists, with current estimates that Bend's population will swell by 25 percent over the summer months with tourists, we are hard pressed to believe that minor increases in TRT will slow the flow.)

It's like the saying goes: "The punishment should fit the crime." In the case of Bend's need for affordable housing, safe streets and sidewalks, and effective public transit, funding solutions must take into consideration the problem's origins. And, without a sales tax to tap into visitor spending, we need to find a way for those most in need of housing to benefit from those for whom staying in Bend is a luxury.

Yet, despite the City of Bend acknowledging we have an affordable housing "crisis," they are failing to treat it like an emergency. If robbing the Prince to shelter the Pauper is a drastic measure, then the times call for it.

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