Real estate PAC pours thousands of dollars into Bend city council election

The current Bend City Council is a united front. Typically, all seven members vote unanimously on most issues and it’s rare that any member strays from that path.

But that could all change if cash-fueled political committees in Central Oregon have their way — and they’re spending a large amount of money backing candidates to shake up the lockstep approach to policy.

The donations come as candidates present dueling visions of housing in Bend, one of Oregon’s most costly and unaffordable cities. Such issues as homelessness and high rents have been growing issues in the region and across the state, but candidates differ greatly on how to address those problems.

With three council positions and the mayor’s seat up for grabs in November, each side has an opportunity to shape housing policy in the city for the next four years.

The present political status quo

The current council has emphasized building a denser city, with more multi-family units and mixed-used neighborhoods containing a variety of housing types, as well as making the city more safe for biking and walking. They’ve advocated for more city oversight into certain projects, such as increasing restrictions on short-term rentals in Bend.

Challenger candidates backed by the local real estate industry, meanwhile, are advocating for fewer regulations to build new homes and expanding the urban growth boundary, all while placing a larger emphasis on single-family homes to meet market demand.

In contrast to the current council, they have criticized short-term rental restrictions, increased density and an emphasis on a more bike-friendly city.

“While (density) can be a portion of the strategy, (the council is) not looking at the needs of our community as a whole,” said Sean Sipe, a real estate broker and one of those candidates for city council.

Bend City Council chambers in 2017. Bend councilors and mayor are elected for four-year terms.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

One of the largest spenders in the race is the Central Oregon Association of Realtors PAC, which has poured more than $164,000 into local races thus far.

In most cases, the money from the Realtors PAC makes up the vast bulk of cash raised by candidates challenging the current council. Candidates Sipe, Erlin Taylor, Chris Piper and Rick Johns have each received between $10,000 and $20,000 in individual donations.

As a result, these candidates have far outraised their incumbent opponents. Piper, who is running for mayor, has raised $120,000, with 20% coming from the Realtors PAC. That’s double the nearly $60,000 total raised by his opponent, current Councilor Melanie Kebler.

Kebler has received PAC donations from Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocates for increased firearm regulations, and the Laborers’ International Union of North America. Incumbent Councilor Barb Campbell received $1,000 from the Oregon League of Conservation Voters.

Kebler said she’s frustrated that such large donations have created a gap between her and her opponent.

“It is unfortunate how much money I feel like I need to raise to be competitive against somebody who’s receiving those types of really large donations from such few sources,” Kebler said.

In response to criticism of a politically homogeneous council, Kebler said the current council is diverse in terms of their lived experiences, even though they vote similarly.

Piper declined to comment for this story.

Realtors seek candidates

Tyler Neese, the treasurer for the Central Oregon Association of Realtors PAC, said the association and its members would like to see an expansion of the city’s urban growth boundary and an increase in the number of single-family homes being built.

Essentially, rather than build denser, multi-family units, the city should attempt to expand its boundaries, he said.

“How are we going to bring in more acres and bring in more housing to be able to really chip away at that problem?” Neese said.

Large donations are not new for the Central Oregon Association of Realtors, but 2022 has seen larger amounts. In 2018, Bend’s last mayoral election year, their PAC spent more than $144,000, but were largely unsuccessful in getting their candidates elected.

Much of the PAC’s finances stems from donations from its hundreds of members in the region. Then, the PAC’s board decides where and to whom that money will be spent, usually after interviewing the candidates, Neese said.

In interviews with OPB, these candidates with real estate backing said they felt the city should eliminate barriers to development and seek out unused lands in Bend to construct new housing.

Beth Davies has been a real estate agent in Bend since 2004. She serves on the board of the Realtors PAC and said her industry has long had a hand in local politics. While real estate agents in Bend can cover the political spectrum, she said those who decide where that money is spent tend to lean more conservative.

Neese told OPB that the PAC is supporting candidates they believe can solve Bend’s housing crisis by increasing supply in a seller’s market.

“We are in a crisis,” Neese said. “Our organization’s involvement is a reflection of that and that’s why we get involved in these races.”

A new neighborhood is under construction in Bend, Oregon on Oct. 10, 2022. Where and what kind of housing is built is a big topic this election cycle.

A new neighborhood is under construction in Bend, Oregon on Oct. 10, 2022. Where and what kind of housing is built is a big topic this election cycle.

Joni Land / OPB

Questions from OPB found that the candidates backed by the Realtors PAC may not entirely share the same view as their benefactors. Both Sipe and Johns said that, while many Bendites are struggling to find housing, they don’t believe Bend is facing a “housing crisis.”

“I think that there is a dire need to address it — I don’t know that I would go so far as a crisis, because I don’t think it’s an unattainable (solution),” Sipe said.

Johns said he doesn’t believe data backs up claims of a housing crisis, because that would mean “people are out on the street and they can’t afford to stay in their houses.”

When asked about Central Oregon’s growing population experiencing homelessness, Johns said “most of them aren’t even from the West Coast.”

Data do indicate housing is increasingly out of reach for many in Central Oregon. Homes in Bend were selling for a median price greater than $770,000 in June, according to the realtors association. State Economist Damon Runberg has said Bend is the second most unaffordable city in Oregon, behind only Hood River.

Regardless of who voters choose, there’s a lot at stake in this election for Bend. In coming years, the City Council is likely to take up discussions ranging from the urban growth boundary to what kinds of fees developers should pay when building housing.

And the outcomes of those discussions could determine who can – or can’t – afford to live in Oregon’s fastest growing city.