Katy Nesbitt
The La Grande Observer

ENTERPRISE — Some of Northeast Oregon’s small towns face big city problems.

A lack of available housing for incomes across the spectrum is plaguing renters in Wallowa County, something that is also a problem in larger markets such as Portland.

Andy McKee, of McKee Brothers, redevelops and rents apartments and homes in Joseph and Enterprise. He said there is a dearth of housing — not just affordable housing, but housing in general.

“I have doctors and attorneys calling and saying they can’t find a place to rent,” McKee said. “That’s asinine to me.”

While Wallowa County has been a vacation destination for more than 100 years, the population has stayed around 7,000 for decades. When the timber industry all but vanished, so did most of the family-wage jobs. The logging and mill jobs dwindled, and the U.S. Forest Service district office staff is now around a third of the size it was in the early 1990s.

McKee, formerly a financial asset manager, said land prices are high, giving little incentive to builders to construct spec homes. He said most houses priced in Enterprise between $150,000 and $200,000 need extensive renovation, discouraging would-be investors from buying homes to rent out.

Renovating long-neglected older buildings and homes is where the McKee Brothers found their niche.

One of the first rental properties the McKees renovated consists of eight apartments on the southeast edge of Joseph, formerly
nicknamed “Felony Flats.” They now rent for around $800 each and McKee said all are occupied.

After renovating downtown Enterprise’s Burnaugh Building on the corner of North and River streets, McKee said, the McKee Brothers leased each of the four upstairs apartments for roughly $1,000 a month. When they finish work on Enterprise’s Litch Building at River and Main streets, they will offer 12 more apartments for comparable rent.

Wallowa Mountain Properties has long been the county’s primary property management company, overseeing 97 households. Diane Daggett is both a real estate broker and the company’s property manager. She pointed to a stack of applications about an inch thick, filled out by people looking for a place to rent.

Daggett said around 35 percent of the homes in Enterprise are rentals, and the city’s vacancy rate is low. Stagnant wages, high student loans and a shift in values has fewer people looking to buy — putting even more pressure on the rental market.

“There’s a bleak future for renters,” Daggett said.

See complete story in Wednesday's Observer