Housing, labor shortages, child care all top of mind

By Katy Brooks, CEO, Bend Chamber

This article originally appeared in The Bulletin on September 18, 2022.

Every election cycle the Bend Chamber invites candidates to meet with members of the chamber community to discuss what is topmost on our minds as employers and businesses. The chamber is a non-partisan organization with a mission to serve Bend businesses and their employees.

When we interact with candidates it is with the goal of helping them understand us a bit more deeply. Businesses can share the experience of the challenges of inflation and a growing labor shortage while customers balk at higher prices and poorer service.

But sometimes businesses are stereotyped as adversaries, and this can stymy productive discussion with candidates.

So this is our ask of candidates this election season — seek us out and engage in discussion. Employers in Bend are facing many challenges that look much like those of other citizens that can be aided by policy and legislation. Challenges like rising inflation, labor shortages, the lack of workforce housing and childcare.

Let’s start with local elected seats. For city council and mayoral candidates, recent feedback I’ve received from the business community is for council to concentrate on the user experience of the city’s beleaguered permitting system. Improvements are under way, but the consequences to local businesses have been very significant — both monetarily and to their operations. Time waiting for permits can make or break a project that could be for housing or employment.

Employers support the city’s ongoing progress in generating more attainable housing and developing areas that will meet the future population demands of Bend like the Central District and the Stevens Road Tract. And, like all of us in Bend, businesses are concerned about caring for the unhoused and are looking to city council to find solutions that can help the many facets of this growing population, while also addressing the monetary and safety impacts to businesses and citizens of Bend.

Deschutes County commissioners will be asked about how they can assist in generating more housing as new state codes are implemented for Accessory Dwelling Units on county property. Additionally, increasing earning thresholds for funding assistance to include those who make a middle income will help bridge the widening gap of attainable housing.

Businesses also want to know how the county is addressing the growing need for more mental health assistance, leading the county-wide coordinated efforts to address houselessness, planning for the future waste management facility and addressing the growing pressures of population growth.

Candidates for state offices will hear about how difficult the past few years have been on many small businesses. As the state faces a likely recession, businesses will contend with ongoing supply chain glitches and fast-rising inflation.

But much of what employers are discussing today is labor — or a lack thereof.

Businesses are looking to the state to assist in addressing the labor shortage. Driven by unattainable housing, rising costs of living, lack of childcare and skills barriers, the workforce drought is a conversation at every business desk and countertop.

And since lack of attainable housing and affordability in our region is driving a significant portion of the labor shortage, the state can help address our housing crisis by funding and supporting local jurisdictions in their efforts to build more housing.

Home prices skyrocketed across most of the state (but mostly in Bend and Central Oregon) during COVID and aren’t leveling out enough to make them accessible to what once was the middle class. Candidates need to support increased access to funding assistance to a broader band of Area Mean Income — up to 120 percent, to include more people who, although their paychecks may be higher than some, can no longer afford to live here.

State officials can also assist in ensuring that legislation from past sessions is well vetted and implemented. Employers are a valuable resource for shaping new employee regulations and providing feedback on glitches that happen with new laws and taxes.

These are all complex issues that are facing our next elected officials. Businesses are an under-tapped resource of information and support for many initiatives that elected officials will be working on in the coming years.

They are Democrats, Republicans, Independents and unaffiliated. They are community members and the foundation of our economy. Employers will tell you what is working and what isn’t from an on-the-ground perspective. They are also the mothers of invention, creative problem solvers and a voice that should be sought out, as with all voters. The difference is that businesses are also responsible for the livelihood of those voters. Something that should be invaluable to lawmakers.