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Hearing consensus: Ashland is in an affordable housing crisis

About 25 community members concerned with Ashland’s housing crisis spoke their minds at a Housing and Human Services Commission forum Thursday night. Attendees ranged from rent-burdened tenants to landlords looking for ways to reduce costs.

Half of the meeting was dedicated to an open conversation about rent burden. Senior Planner Brandon Goldman said 35 percent of renter households in Ashland experience severe rent burden. That means they spend more than half of their income on rent.

Several members of the public commented but left before their names could be recorded, including a woman who said she works three professional jobs that all pay above minimum wage and she still spends more than 50 percent of her income on rent alone. She also said she can’t afford to save for her son’s college fund because she must spend the remainder of her money on bills and food.

The woman noted that U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) vouchers don’t apply in Ashland because the rent is too high in all scenarios, even if it was subsidized.

About 44 percent of Ashlanders experience rent burden which means they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Approximately 44 percent of renters in Ashland are one-person households, Goldman said.

A quick browse on any apartment rental website shows the prices for a one-bedroom apartment in Ashland ranging from around $850 to $1400, most of which are 500 square feet or less.

But 46 percent of Ashland renters can only afford less than $875 on rent a month. Nearly half — 46 percent — of Ashland residents are renting their living space.

“How did we get here? Why is there a housing crisis?” an audience member asked. To which another audience member answered, “I don’t believe it’s a housing crisis. I believe it is a wage crisis.”

That seemed to be the one item everyone in the room could agree on: that wage increases have not kept up with inflation in housing market costs.

“People are rapidly being priced out by what the market is providing,” Goldman said.

He said the competition for one- and two-bedroom rentals from students and retirees doesn’t help the matter.

“Ashland has a 1 percent vacancy rate,” Goldman said. “A healthy vacancy rate is 5 percent.”

Commission Chair Rich Rohde asked the crowd, “How many people think there is an affordable housing crisis?”

Every single hand went up.

Linda Reid, city housing program specialist, said there are so many reasons for the lack of affordable housing, including, but not limited to: the fact Ashland is a very desirable place to live; Californians, or “equity migrants,” are moving in; people are still scared from the housing market crash; HUD vouchers don’t really apply in Ashland because the rent is so high; and on and on.

“I think it’s a combination of things and that’s the hard part,” Reid said. “I think it’s safe to say it’s not just Ashland in this boat affordability problems are widespread in the U.S.”

Reid also said she has a list of mandated affordable housing programs in Ashland managed by ACCESS, but that some of the waiting lists have closed because they are so full.

Prospective solutions

Forest Berg, a land use planner, asked if the city has investigated land trusts. Land trusts are basically an agreement between the seller and the recipient which can sometimes be nonprofit organizations. The nonprofit would own and upkeep the property and build affordable housing. The housing would remain affordable because the homeowner wouldn’t pay the cost of inflation for the land.

Goldman said the Ashland Community Land Trust purchased 16 units over the course of 15 years, but the cost of land became too expensive to continue and the organization dissolved a few years ago.

Reid said the nonprofit NeighborWorks Umpqua is the organization that now works with acquiring land trusts in the county and that there is a “renewed land trust interest” in Ashland.

Another suggestion was to vet people who need affordable housing to rent rooms from elderly citizens who may live alone in a large home. This would supposedly ease the housing cost burden for seniors and in turn, create affordable housing.

Reid said the Rogue Valley Council of Governors has a program like this, but it isn’t something the city does.

Teresa Safay, an Ashland resident and landlord, suggested a utility break for landlords. She said she spends a month of rent just to pay for water, which is included in her tenants’ rent.

Goldman said the city is looking at land use, financial incentives and ways to reduce development costs as ways to improve the situation.

The City Council will revisit the Transit Triangle Overlay strategy, a way to incentivize developers to build smaller apartments and multi-family units on the south end of town, at its Nov. 20 meeting.

He said the city is also looking at applying vertical housing tax credits and multi-family housing credits which would reduce building costs for development of rental units.

“Most notably, the city is looking at selling city property (on Clay Street) to the housing authority of Jackson County at cost,” Goldman said. This would be the price the city paid for the property in 2009.

Goldman said the city also uses development grant block funds to purchase projects and to develop sidewalks in front of affordable housing units to lower the cost.

EcoNorthwest, an economic consulting firm, was hired to create a tool-kit for improving housing, specifically affordable housing, in the region. Ashland is one of six cities participating in this regional problem-solving plan.

According to the report provided by EcoNorthwest: “At the beginning of 2018, the median home sales prices for existing housing in Ashland were $410,000, an increase of $85,500 or 25% from 2013. Ashland’s housing prices for existing housing were $142,000 or 50% higher than the median home costs for housing in urban areas.”

The report also states, “Housing costs have increased faster than incomes in Ashland over the last decades. The median home value in Ashland increased from 5.8 times the median household income in 2000 to 7.7 times the median household income in the 2011-2015 period.”

EcoNorthwest suggested five policies for the city based on the need for increased concentration of housing to improve the efficiency of residential land use and to increase affordable housing development opportunities.

Commission action

The second half of the meeting was dedicated to feedback on the Housing Element update in the city’s comprehensive plan. This will be the first full update since 1989.

Every Oregon city has a comprehensive plan consisting of 12 areas such as transportation, parks, public services and housing.

The commission is looking to update the language to provide a general view overtime, as opposed to the time-period specific language it currently has.

Public feedback is a priority for the update. Staff noted reoccurring comments such as a strong support of having goals and policies which will protect the environment and creating and protecting affordable housing.

“The original housing element had one goal and the new one has four goals and 24 policies,” Goldman said.

New goals include allowing housing above commercial buildings, taking advantage of infill strategies to protect the environment and supporting affordable housing.

Rohde, commission chair, emphasized to the crowd that the feedback gathered is crucial to presenting the community’s wants and needs to City Council.

The Planning Commission will discuss a draft of the Housing Element update at its Nov. 27 public hearing.

Then the Housing and Planning commissions will make recommendations to the City Council at a study session in January and the council will hold public hearings in February and March before the update is adopted.

“We’re hoping to be done before the budget process starts (before March) if possible,” Reid said.

Contact Daily Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

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