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I recently completed my graduate coursework in a small resort town in Northern Idaho and had my sights set on what lay ahead. To complete my degree program, I was required to find a position as an intern for six weeks during the summer months before graduating in the fall. I had pieced together my interests, passions and education to find the perfect internship in a beautiful, rural town in Northeastern Oregon. What I didn’t anticipate was how difficult it was to find housing in a summer tourist destination town.
My plan was to stay there for a minimum of six months to finish out school and start the job hunt that comes when grad school spits you out on the other side. Serendipitously, my long-term boyfriend, who works for the Forest Service as a wildland firefighter, got a transfer of duty station to the same town, and we were suddenly looking for a more permanent move. Not just for the two of us, but also our two bird dogs. We went on a house hunting trip in March and found a small number of vacant houses in the 6,000 person county. However, they were all awaiting their high-paying short-term guests that would flood the town seeking relaxation in the spring as the streets began to thaw.
When we began our hunt, there were four places listed in the entire county that advertised for long-term renters — not a single one of them allowed pets. My boyfriend and I stayed hopeful that something would open up in the next two months before both of our leases ran out and he had to start his new job. This county that didn’t have a single stoplight also didn’t have any available housing — then or anytime soon.
As the days ticked past, we got desperate and attempted to make contact with Airbnb owners and property managers to offer an obscene amount of monthly rent if they would allow us to stay there with our dogs for at least six months. We were met with the same answer every time: “I would be losing money, and your dogs would cause too much wear and tear on my house.” When we started looking into buying our own first house, we quickly realized that we were suffering the plight of many other millennials these days — he had an established, high-paying job for the area, and I had a graduate degree and mounting student debt, which rendered us financially crippled and unable to afford owning our own home.
I had lived in the ski resort, mountain towns of Colorado throughout my 20s and was used to the idea of breaking my back to work two jobs or long shifts to pay the rent. However, I wasn’t expecting to have to do that to live in a town with no stop lights or ski resort — especially after I graduated with my master’s degree. The secret was out: Homeowners can earn more income by catering to short-term renters through platforms such as Airbnb, VRBO and others than by renting to long-term tenants. Not only that, but this approach causes less wear and tear on your home.
It would be irrational to think that the town that I was moving to was the only town affected by this issue and was not surprised to find out that it has become an issue in a number of rural towns across the states. A neighborhood in San Diego, California, had to move a city meeting about short-term rentals to a larger venue when an unexpected number of residents turned out in fear of their community losing its identity to transient renters. Interest has been piqued in communities from Asheville, North Carolina, to Flagler County, Florida, where 75 homeowners have filed lawsuits — all the way to where I now call home in Wallowa County, Oregon.
Wallowa County identified the issues that permitting short-term rentals would have within city limits in late 2015. One city council member speculated that allowing them would eventually drive away the workers and children from their communities due to their inability to find housing where they once called home. In February of 2016, there were new regulations put in place to ban short-term rentals within the city limits of Joseph, the leading tourist town in the county, and also limiting the number of permits allowed in the surrounding area. However, that hasn’t stopped the short-term rental market from increasing by 34 percent throughout the nation in the past year, adding more homes to the list of over 550,000 homes on AirBnb alone.
The vicious cycle that my beloved small town is trying to prevent from occurring is the continued purchase of second homes that are purely intended for short-term housing. New housing is not prominent in rural areas and can add to the strain on middle-income families to find homes to purchase within their price range. Middle-class families sustain smaller towns — they are your ranchers, gas station attendants, librarians and city servants. “The concept can be explained by simple economics,” a local high school educator speculated when I brought it up in conversation at the local coffee shop. “As the well-to-do deplete the supply, the demand rises for new homes within in the county without the desire to see their towns grow and sprawl across the open spaces they know and love.”
In the end, it took some perseverance on my end to find what we now call our home. While in the midst of completing my finals week of my master’s program, I was frantically calling rental management companies, real estate agents and Airbnb owners to find a place to land in Wallowa County. I was met with dead end after dead end. I started texting one of the real estate agents on a weekly basis to pester him about available housing. We finally got lucky nine days before our leases expired. It turned out that a lady needed to break her lease because she had accepted a job in a nearby city. It was a three bedroom home, right downtown, with a large fenced in yard listed at a reasonable price. All of the tireless effort was worth it — we had struck a gold mine.
Being an old-fashioned man, the landlord wouldn’t rent to us until having met at least myself and our dogs. I made a five-hour drive for a 30-second meeting that involved a head pat for my dog and a handshake between the two of us. I immediately wrote a big, fat check and signed a lease without ever seeing the house. I drove past the address on the lease very quickly before returning to campus to take my very last final test the following morning.
We have since moved into the house and have been residing there for nearly six months. There are whispers throughout town of our landlord selling some of his properties, and so we keep our ear to the ground for inexpensive houses on the market.
W.M. Chandler is a writer who lives in Wallowa County, Oregon.