“What’s the Story with Housing in Tillamook County” Series: Housing Key for Coastal Businesses to Find—And Keep—Employees

By Housing Commission Outreach Committee

 In 2002 Debra Greenlee moved to Manzanita.  A life-long Oregonian born in Portland, she got a job managing the San Dune Tavern, a renowned Manzanita icon built in 1935 and beloved by locals and visitors.  In 2005 she was able to buy the Tavern and changed the name to San Dune Pub.

In those days she was open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner from 11:30 to midnight and had 32 employees.  Now she has 9 employees, which includes the owners, and is only open 20 hours a week, Fri-Mon 4-9.  She can’t get workers because they can’t get housing.  The current employees have housing because they have lived here and worked for her for a long time. One 40-year-old employee returned to North County after being away for some years but is living with her mother because she can’t find housing.

Like many restaurants, the San Dune added a cover, outdoor fire pits and heaters for more seating during the pandemic.

The San Dune Pub is losing a lot of money and patrons are unhappy that it isn’t open more. Visitors need to be educated about why services are so curtailed.  Debra tells them it’s about housing.

Investors have approached Debra to ask if she would consider selling her business and she has thought about it.  But the investors ask if there is enough housing for employees and she has to tell them there isn’t.

Debra Greenlee, San Dune Pub in Manzanita

As early as 2019 she knew there was a serious housing crisis and went to city officials to find out what could be done.  One suggestion from city officials was that she get the merchants together to talk about it.  Debra expressed frustration that it can be hard for businesses to add more to their plate. Since she and her partner now work 10-12 hours a day, they just didn’t have the time to take this on.  They are baby boomers and feel that they can’t work at this pace forever. If there was adequate workforce housing, they and other merchants could have more employees, be open more hours, and have less stress.  But she feels it’s only getting worse.

In past years, rentals in Manzanita were available and affordable and a person working at the Pub could make a decent living.  Students and young people could get summer jobs at the beach in those days.

That’s a bygone era.  Now workers have to drive from Tillamook or Seaside or find roommates to share a place if they can find it. Affordable rentals just don’t exist.

San Dune Pub is far from the only coastal business facing these challenges. *According to the 2019 Housing Needs Analysis (HNA) 1 in 4 workers in Tillamook County drive over 50 miles one way to work.

Debra is one of 85 business owners who responded to an employer survey about housing that was distributed by the Tillamook County Housing Commission in October. 54 of those businesses employ ten or fewer employees. Over 50% of the respondents facing employee shortages were businesses in the hospitality and services sectors.

Virtually all employers told the Housing Commission that attainable housing contributes to community vitality. Housing for employees builds stable families and communities, strengthens local businesses’ employee hiring and retention, and builds the customer base to strengthen local businesses.  And employers recognize that housing promotes improvement of the social determinants of community health and personal well-being, and ensures that public sector employees who serve the entire community in education, healthcare, governance, safety (firefighters, EMS, police) can find places to live.

When asked, “How has your business addressed the workforce housing shortage on behalf of your current or prospective employees?” Debra, like more than half of the other respondents, said, “We would like to, but not sure how.”

And like most employers, when asked, “How has your business addressed any shortage of employees resulting from lack of available workforce housing?”  San Dune has offered higher wages, flexible schedules, shared positions, and shortened business hours and days of operation.

It’s clear that economic drivers are wreaking havoc on local housing markets and that it will take everyone working together to find short-term and long-term solutions to increase workforce housing.

The Tillamook County Housing Commission is actively gathering input from a wide range of perspectives, which includes re-launching the employer survey in 2022, emphasizing that it hopes to see more businesses offer feedback.

What would Debra do about housing if she were “queen for a day”?  Her solution would be to buy up property in the surrounding rural area and build a workforce neighborhood with smaller homes that would be affordable to someone making $15-18 per hour.  She dreams that all the businesses in Manzanita would have enough employees so that they would be less stressed, and visitors would be satisfied with services.

With tears in her eyes and passion in her voice, Debra expressed how important this is to her.  She is frustrated and deeply concerned.  She is very concerned about where Manzanita will end up without housing, without enough employees, with stressed-out business owners and dissatisfied visitors.

She feels change needs to happen.

* The full 2019 Housing Needs Analysis can be found at https://www.co.tillamook.or.us/sites/default/files/fileattachments/housing_commission/page/57834/tillamook_hna_final_report_v2.pdf

This story is brought to you by the Tillamook County Housing Commission’s outreach effort to increase workforce housing in Tillamook County. For more housing stories and information, visit www.co.tillamook.or.us/bc-hc.  If you have a housing story to share, email it to TillamookCoHousingCommission@gmail.com.