When I scanned the Tidings headline from atop my recycling pile &

"City Considers Land Swap to Build Affordable Housing" &

I didn't know if I was looking at a recent edition or one from months or years back. That can happen at my house.




The date turned out to be April 9, 2008, but I had that d&

233;j&

224; vu again (and again and again) feeling. I typed "affordable housing" into the Tidings' search engine and came up with forty-eight stories. A Mail Tribune search of "Ashland affordable housing" yielded 1120 hits. It takes 112 pages to list them.




That's a lot of words. And let's be fair: all this attention has actually put a few unmoneyed people into homes of their own, which is more than some communities can say. If I were one of those few people I'd be hugely impressed by what's been achieved. But for most Ashlanders, affordable housing has come to seem more like a slogan than a real-world program.




Why is that? Mostly because there's just no easy formula for supplying good housing at less than prevailing market values; relieving pain in one part of the system often causes new headaches in another. The inexpensive approaches rarely succeed, and the successful ones are rarely cheap.




But that's not the whole answer. A little introspective honesty might take us deeper, beginning with a question that I rarely hear asked: how important is affordable housing to us, really?




Well very important, right? Ask most people to complete the sentence "Ashland's a great little town, but _____," and you'll hear plenty, from renters and homeowers alike, about the dwindling portion of people economically qualified to buy homes here.




These tend to be vague conversations, and that's a clue. We know and can explain exactly why we need police and fire protection, roads, emergency ambulances, a clean water supply, a reliable sewage system, stormwater drainage, electricity, traffic lights at busy intersections, and other services that command the city's budget dollars. But affordable housing? Beyond being a compassionate &

some would say moral &

concept, why exactly is it good enough public policy to deserve city land or tax dollars? Without strong, specific answers to that question, affordable housing will never make the city's A-list in any way that counts.




So I posed it to some people who've worked hard on the issue. "It's all about vitality," said one, who grew up in a now-affluent Bay Area suburb. "I watched that place change from this lively, exciting community with kids riding around on their bikes and all kinds of spontaneous outdoor activity, to an all-adult community where there's almost nobody on the streets and you don't see real life going on anywhere. It was a big loss, and I don't want to see it here."




"You have to be practical," said another, a builder who's a veteran community volunteer. "Saying 'Everyone has a right to affordable housing' will never fly. It has to be connected to our self-interest as an individual or a society."




He thinks it does both, especially in the context of workforce housing. In the big picture, he says, "If you need firemen, teachers, etc,. and don't house them, you have to bear the broad-based costs of major commuting: highway costs, fuel consumption, more greenhouse gases. We're responsible for tons of CO2 annually for every Ashland worker commuting to Central Point. And Phoenix and Central Point are bearing the costs of educating our workers' kids. We're making everyone else subsidize the reality that people who work here can't afford to live here."




He was also thinking closer to home. "You really want to be sure your on-call people, firefighters and ER nurses, live nearby. And in general, the closer the relationship between public safety workers and the community, the better off your community's going to be."




Sure, said a former elected official not noted for conservative views, but securing affordable housing "is not government's job. Providing good services and utilities at rates that don't make living here even less affordable, that's government's job." Which is okay, this person added, because Ashlanders "pay lip service to affordable housing but really don't care. Actually they don't want people who might not be able to pay their taxes to move in next to them. And I'm not even sure how much the policy debate matters anymore, because the private market is giving us more and more affordable housing prices every week, which is how all of this should work anyway."




Do any of these people speak for you? If not, and affordable housing is towards the top of your Ashland list, what's your most specific answer to the inelegant question that matters politically: what's in it for all the rest of us?




is the author of As If We Were Grownups, Forest Blood and the new novel Unafraid (with excerpts at ).