Rural Riddle: ‘Palace Lords’ Invade Northwest’s Rural Areas


Here’s a riddle. How can you have lots of building going on, so much so that its near impossible to get a contractor, and yet there is a housing shortage, such that the County hospital can’t get needed employees because there is no place for them to live?

For years we’ve heard about the virtues of “supply-side” economics. That is, when wealthy people get wealthier the wealth will trickle down to everyone. With his promise of further tax-cuts on the wealthy, Donald Trump is continuing the supply-side mantra. More concentrated wealth is good for everyone.

Maybe not? Here in Wallowa County, in northeastern Oregon, very wealthy people (who don’t live here) are building homes that become VRBO’s, producing income for the owners but not adding to the housing stock for nurses, teachers and people who work in local businesses. An increasing number of the homes in nearby Joseph, Oregon stand empty 50 of the 52 weeks of the year because they are second, or third, homes for wealthy folks who live far away and visit infrequently.

The problem is not just about individual greed (although there is that). It is systemic. But the system, which allows those with large financial assets to build with limited benefit to or investment in the local community, ain’t a great system. It is also a “systemic” problem in that Wallowa County’s problems are widespread. How much do VRBO’s, AirBnB’s and people owning infrequently occupied multiple residences contribute to the housing shortage in places like Seattle?

Remember “slum-lords”? Now the problem is “palace-lords.”

This week our friend Rich Wandschneider wrote his final newsPAPER column as the Wallowa County Chieftain is abandoning it’s print edition. The Eastern Oregon media group is moving a number of its local papers out-of-print and on-line, while reducing the frequency of publication for others. Rich’s column, reprinted in Post Alley, is a lovely remembrance of his 35 years as a local columnist and of the way The Chieftain provided “glue” for this community.

What do the aforementioned “housing shortage,” a.k.a. the “work-force housing crisis,” and the disappearance of the 100 year-old local newspaper have in common? Erosion of community. Both diminish the sense of shared community that bind people together and encourage investing in the community, not only financially, but with actual participation.

While owners of vacation homes and vacation rentals do contribute something to local businesses, they aren’t much invested in the community via schools, churches, other civic groups or volunteerism. They are a new kind of “extractive” industry. And the loss of the newspaper, or its print edition, is as Rich so well describes another diminishment in a small town.

On the plus-side, Linda and I did attend and participate in the County Planning Commission’s “Open Forum” meeting last evening where many of these issues were discussed. It was educational and it was encouraging. An overwhelmed Planning Office staff and volunteer County Planning Commissioners are aware of these challenges and how complex they are. The meeting itself was a well-run exercise in democracy, which is something else that seems to be at-risk these days.

For communities such as Wallowa County, and its small towns, the whole thing feels a bit like the David and Goliath story. Goliath: the internet and on-line interactions eclipse face-to-face relationships, the gap between a super-rich elite and everyone else grows, and affordable and low-end housing construction is dis-incentivized. David: a County Planning office with 1.25 FTE for a county whose land-mass is bigger than many nations and several states, five volunteer Planning Commissioners and local citizens who are concerned.

Can communities that attract a lot of tourists retain a sense of community and provide for the human infrastructure — healthcare workers, teachers, locally-owned businesses and families — that make it all work?

Anthony B. Robinson
Anthony B. Robinson
Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.


  1. I remember vacation homes owned by Germans and others starting to dot the hills of Ireland about 2006. Left empty most all of the year.

  2. Here’s possibly another way to look at the things that your community is dealing with. Consider it a minor rant.

    Residential construction by people with the requisite wealth provides jobs for those with skills. When the initial construction is complete, continuing maintenance will employ both skilled and unskilled individuals. So, jobs are created. And if you don’t have enough of a skilled labor pool available in your area to do your project when you want it done, well, I guess you get in line.

    When the need for skilled and unskilled labor is continual, year to year, your community has an opportunity to grow. Perhaps the Palace Lords are providing a service to the community… maybe someday there will be chain restaurants, motels, and box stores. If you’re really lucky even a Walmart.

    I don’t see the connection between high end vacation/rental homes and a shortage of low income housing. The funding sources of the two aren’t connected. Not building one won’t mean more of the other.

    What tends to happens, is county/city government sees an opportunity to gain tax revenues through increased property valuations without figuring out a way not to penalize those of lesser income in the process; i.e., it becomes too expensive to buy or build low cost housing. You might say greed at the government level comes into play.

    Regarding your local newspaper, the business model has been, regrettably, passed by. Like other things, people will usually pay for what they need but can’t get elsewhere. Papers are neither timely nor comprehensive, and while that used to be acceptable in the past it’s not what the public wants today. It’s sad, but the future of printed local news is pretty bleak.

    We live in rural Mason County, and have been watching all the above unfold for years. When I read a column such as yours, or an editorial by the Seattle Times crying for financial support, I feel like much is missing.

    That’s all.

    • “That’s all” but sounds about right.

      And Robinson’s article is simultaneously saying that such houses for the “wealthy” (too bad that word has lost its meaning) are both empty 50 weeks a year and also producing income for the owners. I don’t understand how that works.

    • “… What tends to happens, is county/city government sees an opportunity to gain tax revenues through increased property valuations without figuring out a way not to penalize those of lesser income in the process …”

      The way I understand it, county house valuations don’t determine revenue. It’s the other way around. The county adopts a revenue target, from basic budget and levies, and collects enough tax to meet that target. Valuations determine only who pays more, and who pays less. If your valuation goes up, you’ll pay more — unless everyone else’s valuations go up equally.

      • I think you’re correct. Would it be more accurate to say governing entities ask for increased levies to support larger budgets based on a higher tax base?
        But bottom line is that high end properties raise the valuations at the lower end, and low cost housing often fades away.

  3. These weekenders used to be called 206ers, for the Seattle area code. They eventually affect local politics, as happened in the San Juans or Walla Walla or Bellingham. Other shifts are likely to occur in Edmonds, the Methow, I-90 through the Cascades. Accelerating this trend will be remote workers, seeking recreation and cheaper (at first) home prices and rents. The VRBO syndrome also produces absentee owners. A convergence of factors, unlikely to be reversed, though some places will ban short-term rentals.

    • I’m confused (see below) by a couple of your points; perhaps you could further explain…

      Weekenders, or absentee owners, have a direct impact on cost and supply of local residences and buildable properties, no question. But how can they affect the local politics if they’re not residents?
      And why bring up remote workers, who might better be defined as residents who work remotely? Don’t residents equate to “community”, for better or for worse?

      My impression is that you’ve shifted the conversation from a disappearing community to a community that may be made up of folks you wouldn’t approve of.

      Not trying to poke you on the above, I’m trying to find the points of view that will let me live through the same changes going on in my area. My natural inclination is to try and assign blame for why everything is changing, and I know that’s unhealthy.

  4. Chelan County has a 6% cap on short term rentals. 6% of total housing stock. No permits issued once that maximum has been reached. That was 2021 and as far as I know still stands. Oregon might be different, but if it’s possible, I imagine the cap can be whatever number you want. Chelan grandfathered existing rentals. I believe all this applies only to properties where the owner doesn’t live on site.

    There are a lot of short term rentals in the cities, too, but it’s just one of the liabilities of the free market approach. There’s also a lot of speculation, packaging real estate up as an investment product that can be bought and held without any knowledge of real estate matters in general or the actual real estate in particular. I don’t think such products are easily available to ordinary individuals the way common stock is, but they’re probably quite attractive for investors who have access to them, and there’s a LOT of money out there. No one really seems to know how big a problem this is, and I think they’d prefer not to know.


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