Businesses cut staff, offer free housing at the Coast

Oregon’s coastal businesses are forced to come up with creative solutions to cope with a severe shortage of affordable housing for employees.

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Last year Martin Hospitality Group closed the Lumberyard Rotisserie & Grill in Cannon Beach because it struggled to find enough workers to staff the restaurant in the peak summer season. In its place it opened a new brewpub, Public Coast Brewing, which has a counter service that halves the number of staff it needed for its restaurant.

Other coastal businesses in the hospitality sector are following suit by scaling back operations, opening for fewer hours, and getting by with fewer workers.

These are the consequences of a lack of affordable housing at the Coast, which is one of the top challenges facing businesses in this part of the state, says Court Carrier, executive director of the Cannon Beach Chamber of Commerce.

The problem is especially acute in Cannon Beach where the population balloons to more than 10,000 in peak season from 1,800 in the off-season. Most houses in the coastal town are vacation homes, leaving few available rental accommodations for seasonal workers.

Some businesses have resorted to offering free housing to employees. Pelican Brewing Company is providing free accommodation for cooks that work at the company’s new pub and restaurant in Cannon Beach through September 30.

Jim Prinzing, CEO, says cooks and prep cooks are the most difficult people to hire.  Ideally the new pub and restaurant in Cannon Beach would have eight more cooks to be fully staffed, he says. The company is able to house 10 employees for free in Cannon Beach. It has a number of properties it either leases or owns for employee housing.   

Prinzing says the approach of ski resorts and national parks that provide free accommodations to employees inspired the company to do the same.

“A lot of businesses take the attitude ‘we will wait for others to solve the issue.’ We think it is everybody’s problem. We just can’t do nothing. We are taking the best steps we can,” he says.

Martin Hospitality Group leases a duplex in Cannon Beach that can house eight employees. It charges a small fee for the accommodation. The company had plans to build employee housing in the town, but the land for development was too expensive, says Dave Norstedt, vice president of operations.

Another solution businesses are advocating for is expanding the local bus service so employees can commute to work from areas where there is more housing. Norstedt is part of an affordable housing committee that has worked with local transit services to increase the number of buses running between larger towns, such as Seaside and Astoria.

Carrier at the Cannon Beach Chamber of Commerce supports a change in zoning so more affordable housing can be built. But many residents strongly oppose the construction of multi-family housing units because they fear it could lower their property value.

“No matter how you look at it, it is NIMBY. Residents that live here, many do not like the idea of having a multi-unit housing complex built near them,” says Carrier.

Businesses fear the shortage of affordable housing will limit their ability to expand and restrict economic development at the Coast. More and more businesses may have little choice but to provide free or subsidized housing to employees and increase salaries and benefits to retain staff, especially during the busy summer season.

“The fact is the lack of affordable housing is like a cruise ship — it takes a long time to turn it around. But we are making progress to get the infrastructure in place,” says Carrier.