City seeks revenue for housing trust fund

Community members met Tuesday night to discuss renewed efforts to fund affordable housing in Ashland through a housing trust fund. City efforts to create such a fund began six months ago with a community survey and research of other housing trust funds around the country.

More than 600 cities, counties and states around the United States have created a housing trust fund since the late 1970s, said Mary Brooks, a housing trust fund advocate who spoke at Tuesday's forum. definition, a housing trust fund requires a steady stream of public revenue to support it.

To begin the evening, Brooks read off a list of statistics: The 2006 median home price in Ashland is $465,000, while the median income for a family of four is $52,900. But for that family to buy a home at the median price, they would need an annual income of $127,000.

"What it boils down to is that someone making the median income cannot buy a home in Ashland," she said. "We need to turn that around."

The average housing trust fund takes three years to set up, she said, but Ashland has set a timeline of 20 months according to housing program specialist Brandon Goldman. Right now, the only city-controlled funding for housing are block grants from the federal government, which have dropped from $276,000 to $212,000 in the past four years, he said.

The biggest challenge of creating a trust fund is to find the public funds to support it, Brooks said. While private donations can add to funding, they cannot be used as the primary source of revenue, and she said historically corporations have only been willing to support special housing initiatives, not ongoing projects. The only time in her experience a city tried to create an endowment for housing, the money was reclaimed at the first budget shortfall.

Brooks said in most cities, a hotel/motel tax is the perfect source of revenue, but in Ashland, 70 percent of any increase must go toward the tourism industry. Officials in Bend claimed a cut of building permit valuations, but the state has since struck that down for future efforts.

Other states have allowed counties to increase their document recording fees if the money went to housing, she said.

Meeting attendees were encouraged to brainstorm any ideas for possible funding sources after Brooks' presentation.

Rich Rohde of Oregon Action suggested taxing Jackson County businesses, while Beverly De Leonardis, also of Oregon Action, suggested a city sales tax.

"I could see a county tax, but not a city tax," said City Councilor Alice Hardesty, because people would flee to Medford to shop.

Other suggestions were a "view tax" similar to ordinances in other picturesque cities, as well as a tax on homes over a certain square-footage.

Former planning commission member Tom Giordano was reluctant to use taxes for a housing fund.

"What I hear out on the street is that people are at their limit," he said. "Unless there is a private benefactor, I can't see a dedicated funding source."

Every community Brooks has worked with was able to find a revenue stream, she said, and once the money is found, it comes with a great deal of flexibility.

"It's not like federal funds that come with a bunch of strings attached," she said. "You can figure out what Ashland needs and do it," but she warned that any decisions made would be controversial.

A federal housing bill that will come before the U.S. Senate in November adds extra incentive for Ashland to find its own local revenue, because as the bill stands now, the amount of federal funding would be tied to how much a city is already spending on affordable housing, Brooks said.

A second meeting will be held in the spring next year for more in-depth discussion of revenue sources.

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