‘How we gonna pay?’: City commission hosts first housing forum since 2019

Echo Fields, a member of the Ashland Housing and Human Services Commission, seated at right, talks to attendees at a housing forum held Thursday at Ashland Hills Hotel. Ashland.news photo by Holly Dillemuth
August 29, 2022

Residents can complete an online survey to help assess housing needs 

By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news

“Rent” isn’t due to hit the Oregon Shakespeare Festival stage until next year, but a question from the title song already hangs in Ashland’s air: “How we gonna pay?” At a “Rent Burden” forum last week Thursday, city officials and representatives from area agencies got together in-person for the first time since 2019 to talk about the burdens and constraints on Ashland renters.

Figures show many Ashland residents are burdened by the cost of rent, which is defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as spending more than 30 percent of income on housing. The city Housing & Human Services Commission wants to hear about Aslanders’ housing experience in order to help figure out ways to improve the situation over the course of the next decade. Residents were encouraged to fill out an online survey during the housing forum, which drew about 30 to 40 individuals to Ashland Hills Hotel on Aug. 25 (the survey is available online). Commission members met in conjunction with representatives from the nonprofit organizations ACCESS and United Way and city staff to discuss issues facing renters.

The city’s housing survey will help inform city policy moving forward in the form of an Ashland Housing Production Strategy. The strategy will aim to increase housing options for Ashland residents of all income levels, but especially those at lower and middle class income levels.

City Councilor Gina DuQuenne is the council liaison for the commission and helped secure Ashland Hills Hotel as the venue. DuQuenne is senior sales manager with Neuman Hotel Group, which owns the hotel.

“Doing this gives the community an opportunity to go online and give their feedback as to how this impacts them and their family,” DuQuenne told Ashland.news following the forum. “When you can walk through Ashland and look at about every other house is rent-burdened or is burdened with mortgage and how difficult it is to be able to live in Ashland right now, it’s so important that everybody, especially renters, go and take this survey, be honest and say how it impacts your life on a daily basis.

“We have to look at our codes and our permits,” she added, “to see how we can be flexible and work with developers and get them here into Ashland.”

Allowing higher density for housing developments and lowering barriers within city ordinances that make housing more expensive to develop are ways the city can help, said Brandon Goldman, long-range planner for the city of Ashland, though the city has some limitations.

Echo Fields, a member of the Ashland Housing and Human Services Commission, at left foreground, asks a question of attendees at a housing forum held Thursday at Ashland Hills Hotel. Ashland.news photo by Holly Dillemuth

“It’s important to recognize that the city itself can’t wave a magic wand and require all units to be affordable,” Goldman said.

The idea is to develop a list of strategies the city can use to help identify equitable housing options for all residents in Ashland.

Many wide-ranging factors are involved, including market feasibility.

“There has to be a demand for the units to be built or private market developers aren’t going to build them,” Goldman said. “They have to have access to capital in order to fund the development. They have to be able to find land that is available and suitable for the type of housing needed and, lastly, new developments are subject to city policy.”

Having housing troubles and seeking resources? Contact ACCESS (541-779-6691) or United Way of Jackson County (541-773-5339). Fire-impacted individuals should call The Center for Community Resilience (an ACCESS program) at 541-414-0318, email info@accesshelps.org, or go to accesshelps.org.

Goldman emphasized that the city of Ashland has some policies already on the books that aim to help developers.

“Currently, an affordable housing unit developed in Ashland doesn’t have to pay any system development charges, doesn’t have to pay a number of planning fees or engineering fees,” Goldman said.

“We also offer density bonuses so that affordable housing units can be added to any project without taking away any market rate units,” he added.

The key is finding what keeps Ashland from development, according to DuQuenne.

DuQuenne said many of the fees are similar for development in Medford and throughout the Rogue Valley.

“The question for council, and what I’m hoping will come out of this, is that if the fees are the same, then where are we falling short when we lose the opportunity to have workforce affordable housing in Ashland, because many times, people will build in Medford … and not in Ashland, and why is that? This is the question that will come in front of council that we need to work closely with our Community Development Planning Department.”

DuQuenne said the council needs to look at buildable property, annexation and zoning as well.

“We do have that opportunity, that land is here,” she said. “We just have to get out of our seats and do it.”

Rich Rohde, a member of the Housing and Human Services Commission, talks during the rent burden forum on Aug. 25 at Ashland Hills Hotel. Ashland.news photo by Holly Dillemuth

Following the forum, Housing and Human Services Commissioner Echo Fields said she wants to make sure people throughout the Rogue Valley are aware of Ashland’s housing issues.

“There’s this assumption that Ashland folks are affluent,” Fields told reporters Thursday. “That’s really not true.”

“That’s one thing that comes out of meetings like this, is kind of that reality check that we’re facing,” Fields added. “I want to make those struggles visible.”

Fields believes there is also an excess of single-residency houses nationally because, for decades, “that’s where the money’s been.

“What we need to do is create incentives, frankly, for private builders and contractors and developers to do smaller units, to build more multi-family units, to build duplexes, triplexes, town homes that can be affordable,” Fields said.

Fields, a retired sociology faculty member at Southern Oregon University, lauded the forum for touching on a wide spectrum of topics, from home ownership to increases in rent to the issue of allowing seniors to age in place.

“The lack of affordable rents … is something that I think about a lot because I taught college students for decades, so I’m extremely aware of the needs of people in their 20s who are working in the service sector of this town,” Fields told reporters following the forum. 

“We’re losing people and people who are doing those jobs and that has a really negative effect on liveability here in Ashland. We need to keep our young, creative people.”

Fields said that Ashland experiences somewhat unique constraints in terms of housing.

“We don’t have enough land that’s easy to build on,” Fields said. “We’re probably going to need to do some more actual annexation that’s extremely politically difficult, but without that, we simply will not get the new housing stock that we need.

“Even if we get more housing,” she added, “it doesn’t necessarily mean that rents will go down. It may simply mean that we get more supply of housing that people can’t afford.”

Within her lifetime, Fields hopes that Ashland can maintain its mobile home parks within the city and would like to see at least one more manufactured home park built.

“It’s an equity issue, not only in terms of social class, but in terms of ethnicity,” Fields said. “A lot of the people who were displaced by the Almeda Fire were Spanish-speaking households and they tended to be highly concentrated in mobile home parks. If Ashland is going to be serious about being ethnically, linguistically diverse, we need to have the kinds of housing that those folks are looking for, and what they’re looking for frequently are manufactured homes so they can have a little yard and a place for their kids to run around.”

Mayor Julie Akins and Councilors Shaun Moran and Tonya Graham also attended the forum.

In addition to filling out the survey, commission members encourage those in the community to consider applying to fill an opening on the commission.

A video of the meeting is being produced and will be posted in the next couple of weeks on the city’s website.

The deadline to complete the survey is in mid-October. To take the survey, go to the following link: bityl.co/E5gO.

Reach Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at hollyd@ashland.news.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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