Booming Boardman has jobs but lacks housing

BOARDMAN -- Every weekday, Jim Young sees the result of Boardman's housing shortage through his windshield.

Driving westbound on Interstate 84 from Hermiston, he watches daily as one car after another leaves the highway at the entrance to the sprawling Port of Morrow while he continues on to the next exit to reach his grocery store, Boardman Select Foods.

"Every morning between 5 and 6 there's a steady stream of traffic taking the Port of Morrow exit. I get on at Hermiston, and there's a string of cars coming up from the Tri-Cities," said Young, who bought and upgraded Boardman's lone supermarket about a year ago.

Young, who moved here from western Oregon, has been searching without success for a home to buy.

And he's not alone in this northeast Oregon community, where there are jobs aplenty -- and more on the way -- but a dearth of housing.

"We're in a position where every level of housing there is, we need," said Mayor Chet Phillips, who grew up in Boardman and left for nearly three decades before retiring and returning in 2002 with his wife, Lorrie.

So starting July 1, for one year Boardman will suspend some development fees and offer incentives to businesses and buyers to stimulate interest in building new homes.

The city's goal is modest, with Phillips saying he'd be delighted if 10 new homes were constructed in the next year. But he and others in this city of 3,300 are optimistic the effort will succeed, and will ultimately entice development of more businesses to serve residents.

"The city is right on target with this, and there is a real opportunity for builders here," said Art Kegler, principal broker and owner of American West Properties in Boardman and Hermiston.

There are existing homes on the market in Boardman -- which is bisected into north and south by I-84 -- but no new homes are under construction. Hayden Homes constructed 10 homes about two years ago "and they were all sold before they were even finished with the framing," Kegler said.

Kegler, who has been in Boardman since 1994, said prospective buyers find the housing supply limited, "so we lose them to Hermiston or the Tri-Cities."

Of the estimated work force of between 1,200 to 1,500 at the port and its businesses, up to 70 percent commute to homes outside Morrow County, Phillips said. Nearly 50 percent live in the Tri-Cities area, he said.

Many of the jobs at the port's mix of about 25 agricultural, food processing and bio-energy industry tenants pay well. Morrow County's per capita income of $36,354 ranks it among the highest in the state, said Gary Neal, port general manager.

More tenants are on the way. A bio-energy firm, ZeaChem, last month broke ground for a bio-refinery to produce cellulosic ethanol, saying it eventually will employ up to 20 full-time workers.

Up to 100 jobs are added annually to the port's work force, said Neal, who supports the city's economic development incentives.

"I'm excited about the fact they are trying to identify ways to entice or enhance opportunities for someone to come in here and build," he said.

Debbie Radie of Boardman Foods Inc. also is backing the effort. Radie, the company's vice president of operations, said the onion processing plant must continually cope with turnover because of the lack of housing.

Boardman Foods has about 160 employees, and currently has 40 entry-level, year-round positions that are open. Many of its workers commute from Hermiston, Pendleton or the Tri-Cities, and some quit when they find jobs in those areas.

"People are looking for a decent place to live here and they are not finding it so they look elsewhere," Radie said.

"Anything (the city) can do to encourage people to build, and to build affordable housing, is great. We need rentals and $80,000 to $130,000 homes so people can move up after they get established here and buy a home," she said.

Here's how Boardman's housing incentive program will work:

w The city will suspend its system development charges, which include water and sewer fees, of $2,800 per new home, up to a maximum of $10,000 for a builder who might want to erect multiple houses. Boardman also for one year will cut in half its water rates above the base rate charge for existing and new commercial businesses.

w New home buyers will get three months of free city utility service up to $150. All new home buyers also will receive a free tree.

There is ample room within Boardman's urban growth boundary to expand and a number of vacant lots. Phillips pointed out the pockets of open space during a drive last week through the city, which has a blend of conventional and manufactured homes, mobile homes and apartment complexes.

"We have zero housing in the $150,000 to $200,000 range in the city limits. Over $200,000 it does not exist, so we are not in a position to capitalize on any of the port's industrial success," Phillips said.

A handful of other Oregon cities have temporarily suspended or reduced their system development charges in the past two years, primarily in hopes of stimulating job growth during the recession, said Michael Novak, who works in intergovernmental relations for the League of Oregon Cities.

He was unaware of another Oregon city facing Boardman's predicament of ample jobs and a housing shortage, and applauded the idea. "I think (people) should be patting them on the back if this succeeds in helping the community," he said.

New businesses slowly are opening in the city, including a Mexican restaurant and the recently opened Sunrise Cafe.

But new homes are needed if Boardman is to continue its physical growth and serve a community that's becoming more diverse because of the job opportunities, Phillips said.

Hispanics long have been an integral part of Boardman's fabric, and Phillips -- who took office in 2009 -- says he's strived to ensure the city is more inclusive. For example, the city for the second consecutive year will play host to a soccer tournament during the July 4 weekend, an event that again is expected to draw teams from throughout the region.

Boardman also has become a little more multi-ethnic in the last year with the arrival of 20 refugee families from Nepal, Bhutan and Somalia. The International Rescue Committee, which helps refugees who are forced to flee their countries because of war or disasters, initially had settled the families in Boise. The group helps provide refugees with housing, health care, job and financial literacy skills, education for children, English language classes and legal services to help them with residency and become citizens, according to the organization.

But the Boise job market dried up, and while scouring employment ads in the region, an official in the IRC Boise office spotted openings in Boardman.

"We're a diverse culture here and our job market is broad and it welcomes everyone who is willing to work," Phillips said. "We have a wide spectrum of jobs and opportunities here. We just need the homes."