Rep. Pam Marsh: ‘We are short of about 140,000 housing units’
By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news
Speaking at a local housing forum Tuesday, state Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, painted a grim picture of the statewide housing shortage, but pointed to a bright path forward to climb out of the hole that’s been dug over the years.
“Where are we with housing? … we are in a deep crisis across the state,” Marsh told those gathered downstairs in the library’s Gresham Room. “The data shows us that we are short of about 140,000 housing units.”
Approximately 85 people packed into the Gresham Room late Tuesday afternoon at the Ashland Public Library to learn from state and local leaders about how to tackle the affordable housing shortage faced by not only Ashland, but statewide. It’s one of three talks in “The Big Idea Series” scheduled in January, February and March by the Ashland branch of the American Association of University Women.
Marsh, who represents the Fifth District in the Oregon House of Representatives, was frank about specific ways Southern Oregon is facing the brunt of the housing challenge.
For there to be enough housing for those living on the street, enough vacancies so that when those seeking a new rental could easily find one, and enough homes available for purchase that were really accessible to a first-time homeowner, there would need to be 140,000 more units available than there are today, Marsh said.
“So it is not a surprise that we find people who cannot come here for jobs,” Marsh said. “We find employers who cannot hire people because they do not have homes. We have families that are on the verge of homelessness and we have increasing numbers of people who are living on our streets.”
The first chart in Marsh’s presentation showed that the primary factor driving the increasing percentage of homelessness is a lack of affordable housing. Marsh emphasized that homelessness looks different in Southern Oregon than around the state.
“Certainly, if you are dealing with poverty, you are dealing with drug addiction, you are dealing with mental health, you may have a harder time competing for the housing that’s there,” Marsh said. “But when you look at the data, and this data was provided by the state economist, other communities that have equivalent or more rates of addiction or equivalent or greater rates of poverty don’t have the same kinds of homelessness that we have, because we don’t have housing. So the lack of housing drives everything and … the good news here is we have a governor who is absolutely targeted on housing.”
‘20-year trajectory’ for new housing
Marsh touted Gov. Tina Kotek’s emphasis on boosting housing when she served as House Speaker and, since getting into office, set a goal to build 36,000 housing units each year.
“Now that’s about twice as much as the 18,000 to 20,000 units that we’ve been producing,” Marsh said. “But it’s what we need to do in order to keep stable with … the growth we experience and to make up some of that deficit, that 140,000 units. Certainly those aren’t going to be made up overnight, but we’ve set a 20-year trajectory so that we are not only keeping steady with our growth, but we are actually making up the deficit.”
Between 2006 and 2008 during an economic downturn, businesses stopped building housing.
“If you lived in Ashland, you may remember that a number of developers who had really been prominent in our community simply failed, left the community, stopped building during that period of time,” she said. “Capital was harder to come by and as a result of multiple different factors over the course of time and statewide, we simply haven’t been building units in the same way. This is a national problem as well if you follow the issue on a federal basis. We are a country that is really short on housing and we particularly see that in the West Coast states. So (the Oregon Legislature has) taken this on in a pretty big way.”
Marsh highlighted actions taken during the 2023 Legislative session that relate to housing, including a declaration of a homelessness emergency by Gov. Tina Kotek on Jan. 10, 2023.
“She set an audacious goal for the Legislature to step up and put together a funding package that would support programs across the state,” Marsh said.
“We put together a $200 million package that was passed early session — That’s unusual,” she added. “And really a sign of bipartisan desire to have some immediate effect on the housing crisis.”
About $150 million of the total $200 million went to homelessness programs, including those aiming to rehouse people with rent assistance and providing new shelter beds, as well as statewide programs.
“The data shows us that if you can help someone with even a month of rent at a really hard time in their life, that may be the one factor that prevents what could otherwise be a long period of homelessness,” Marsh said.
Jackson County received $8.8 million for the first allocation from the $150 million state funds going toward alleviating homelessness.
“Countywide, because we were doing so well, we got another $1.1 million, bringing our total to $9.9 million,” Marsh said.
Marsh said the initial goal to rehouse 133 families and to create 67 new shelter beds was far exceeded.
“We expect to have rehoused 225 to 230 families,” Marsh said. “These are people who are not on the street anymore.
“Sometimes I think homelessness feels so overwhelming,” she added. “It’s difficult for people to believe that there’s actually important, tangible things that we can do to address it and to assist people on the street.”
Marsh said funds have also been aimed at programs helping teens and young adults facing homelessness, as well as supporting infrastructure for housing.
Another $20 million of the $150 million in state funding is being aimed at modular housing, and will be distributed in four $5 million grants to entities that are already operating to spur the development of wall panels and full modular units, in order to expedite production of housing statewide.
“We know that we need to start thinking differently about how we actually produce housing and we have a very recent modular housing industry in the state,” Marsh said. “One of the conditions of getting this grant, is if we have another wildfire and people are displaced, and the state needs to order units from you, that the state will be first in line to get those units to provide either temporary or permanent wildfire relief. This is the only thing after dealing with wildfire these past three years that I’ve been able to identify that would help us to actually expedite the placement of housing after a disaster and we can’t keep doing it the way we have been.”
At the end of the 2023 Legislative session, $1 billion was collectively put into housing statewide, including $600 million for the state Local Innovation and Fast Track (LIFT) program which funds affordable housing. The remaining $400 million of the overall $1 billion will go toward funding additional programs, including Operation Turnkey, an emergency, transitional housing program created by the state and implemented by local governments.
“That’s where we are at the end of 2023, but we have not solved the housing crisis,” she said.
“So we’re going to come back and we’re going to keep working on this in 2024.”
Marsh shared that Gov. Kotek is working on putting together a Legislative package tabbed at $500 million, including a tentative option to offer one-time possibilities for cities to expand urban growth boundaries. Marsh said cities would be required to “streamline” permits in certain cases.
“There’s a big chunk of money; the money … is proposed at this point to go to infrastructure and to a program I’ve been working on for the past year,” Marsh said.
The group will provide “targeted funding” for median income housing.
Affordable housing serves individuals who earn up to 60 to 80% of the median income.
“We know … that’s certainly critical,” she said.
“But we also know that the next (level) up of housing, that is, housing that serves 60 to 120% of median income … we call it middle-income housing,” she added.
“That kind of housing we’ve always relied on the private sector to provide for us, but what we’ve discovered is that, in many cases, it simply doesn’t any longer pencil out for the private sector to provide middle-income housing, because of the cost of land and the cost of construction simply outstripped what people at those income levels can pay for that housing.
“If we do not invest in that, we will not have solved the housing issue,” she added.
As part of the $500 million legislative package the Governor plans to put forth in February, Marsh said there will be state revolving loan fund to address middle-income housing.
“The state would put up a big chunk of money, that money would be used by cities to invest in, with private developers, middle-income housing projects,” she said. “Over time, that money would be returned to the loan fund by deferring property tax for up to 10 years and, instead, taking a fee that’s essentially in lieu of the property tax … keeping the fund going. Because we’re not going to solve this problem in the next five years, we’re not going to solve it in the next 10 years and we don’t have an unlimited supply of money, so we need to figure out clever ways to keep the money going to make it work for us.”
Marsh shared that housing is a passion and that the Almeda Fire of 2020 has “taught us how
much housing means and how difficult it is to replace housing once you’ve lost it, at the state level.”
Brandon Goldman, community development director for the city of Ashland, shared local stats on housing in addition to answering questions from the audience. Look for that story in Part 2.
Reach Ashland.news staff reporter Holly Dillemuth at firstname.lastname@example.org.