Housing Shortage Strikes Kittitas County
ELLENSBURG - Hal Rees survived the winnowing of more than 150 applicants over nearly three months to become Ellensburg's new police chief earlier this month. Then came the hard part.
After an otherwise fruitless search, Rees moved with his family into a rental house east of town - and considered himself fortunate to get that.
``We called every real estate company in the yellow pages - there was nothing to buy,'' he said. ``There were only three houses in the entire valley for rent - and I have no comment on two of them.''
Rees grabbed the third. But he said he's still looking to buy a house in the area - without much luck. ``There seems to be a limited market,'' he said.
Propelled by the Seattle-spawned sprawl that has already swallowed east King County, and the desires of coast-dwellers and Californians looking to duck the rat race, Kittitas County and its economic hub, Ellensburg, are facing an unprecedented demand for residential growth - welcome news after a real estate recession throughout much of the '80s.
``It is as tight as I've ever seen it,'' said Bob Kelley, the owner-broker of Kelley Realty Inc. ``We've kind of depleted our supply. The average selling price of a house has increased and the length of time on the market has decreased from a year ago.''
``It's a seller's market,'' said Sandy Walker, a sales associate with Jenison-Repp Realty. ``. . . And the people who are buying are people who have built up equity (in Seattle or California) and can build here for half the cost.''
Dennis Mickens, owner of Cle Elum Realty, said people are finally recognizing the area as an ideal place to raise children in a clean environment.
Housing prices have jumped about 17 percent in the past year, according to a multiple listing of homes sold in Ellensburg. The average price of a house sold in the city through May this year is $65,833. Through May 1989, the figure was $54,566.
At the same time, the average time a house was listed on the market dipped from more than 10 months in 1989 to less than four months through the first four months of 1990.
And there are fewer houses available. Last year, Ellensburg realtors sold 171 homes. Through May of this year, they had sold only 54, with few left anywhere. Supply is unable to meet demand, despite record numbers of building permits issued and property sales recorded.
Kittitas County overall has seen a 60 percent boost in property sales from last year - and a 90 percent boost in excise tax revenue, said treasurer Sally Schormann.
``We really need a new, nice, middle-class subdivision,'' said W. Joey Clark, a sales associate with Thayer-Case Realtors in Ellensburg. ``I guarantee you we'd sell them just like that.''
People looking for rental homes aren't likely to find much in that market, either. ``There are zero vacancies,'' Kelley said. ``I know a business owner here in town who recently sold his old house and had to move out before he can move into his new house. In between, he can't find a rental house.''
In upper Kittitas County, most of the land surrounding the city is protected national forest land, so there are few parcels of property available to build houses on.
Contributing to the uncertainty of the rental market, experts say, is the prospect of the enrollment lid being lifted at Central Washington University in the next few years to allow as many as 500 new students.
Realtors and contractors, however, are scrambling to meet the demand, and year-end projections show a slight increase in property and sales volume.
So who are the people creating this demand? Real estate agents say they include the following groups:
-- Professionals ``looking to escape the rat race'' from California and other West Coast urban areas and raise their families in a clean, comparatively unspoiled environment.
-- Central Washington University professors, those looking to retire and stay in Ellensburg, and those who will be taking their place but can't take their houses.
-- Shift workers - doctors, firefighters, nurses, airline and ferry employees, etc. - who work in King, Kitsap, Pierce and Snohomish counties on ``flex time'' schedules that give them from three to 10 days off at a stretch.
-- Retirees who take advantage of the Seattle area's seller's market, sell at a profit and buy or build in the valley for as little as half the cost, partly as an investment to pass on to their children.
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