The Walla Walla Valley has gone through a lot of change in the last few decades, with the rise of local wineries leading to a booming tourist industry. One change resulting from that boom has been hard to ignore recently: the price of housing in the Valley.

When short-term vacation rentals came under scrutiny by the Walla Walla City Council this year, one of the major concerns of city leaders raised was the effect allowing more of them to operate would have on housing affordability for local residents.

Housing costs are a constant topic of discussion in conversations around homelessness in the Valley. And the issue isn’t just local, either; communities all over the country are facing difficulties with housing affordability.

So what, exactly, is the problem? How bad is it in Walla Walla, really, and what is being done?

Incomes low, prices high

Homeownership in Walla Walla and College Place, according to College Place-based real estate broker Ken Louderback, currently comes with a $200,000 to $250,000 price tag for most buyers. About $150,000, he said, is the lowest a family can expect to pay for a house “without having a slumlord feel to it.”

While what constitutes a “slumlord feel” depends on perspective, Louderback’s estimates for average housing prices are backed up by data. The median resale price for a home in Walla Walla County was $220,500 in the third quarter of 2017, according to the quarterly report to the State Housing Commission and Department of Licensing prepared by the Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies at the University of Washington.

That report also lists Walla Walla County as being highly affordable, with a Housing Affordability Index score of 150.2, and 106.3 for first-time homebuyers.

The index measures median household income relative to the income needed to buy a median-priced house. The metric, widely used as an indicator for affordability, is compiled by the National Association of Realtors based on median home prices in a given area; the Federal Housing Finance Board’s effective mortgage rate — 4.06 percent in November, the most recent data available);  and income figures for that area. Walla Walla County’s affordability index score is pretty good, but it used to be better, according to Patrick Jones, executive director of Eastern Washington University’s Institute for Public Policy and Economic Analysis. In 2012, the county’s affordability index was around 200. Since then, home prices have risen about 43 percent, while incomes have only risen by 14 percent.

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