The Ashland City Council has given the green light to the largest affordable housing project in the city in decades.

The Ashland City Council has given the green light to the largest affordable housing project in the city in decades.

The city will team with Jackson County Housing Authority to buy 10 acres of land on Clay Street. Part of that land will be earmarked for 60 rental units for people earning 60 percent of the area's median income or less.

The City Council approved a land swap on Tuesday night to make the project possible. City and Housing Authority staff met on Wednesday to begin analyzing development plans.

Although the land swap was approved, the development must still go through the city's regular land-use process, with plans reviewed by the Ashland Planning Commission.

Decades ago, the federal Department of Agriculture built a few large-scale affordable housing projects in Ashland, including the 52-unit Stratford Apartments on Clay Street, said Ashland Senior Planner Brandon Goldman.

However, the period of time that the apartments had to be affordable is expiring. The owner has already applied to take those apartments out of the city's affordable housing stock, Goldman said.

In more recent years, Mayor John Morrison said the city has been making gradual progress in providing affordable housing by approving small projects here and there. But the 60-unit development is a major step that could help families live in Ashland.

"This is an extraordinary opportunity for the city," he said.

The Ashland School District closed two of its five elementary schools several years ago because of declining enrollment.

The project will house 82 to 106 children, according to Housing Authority staff.

City Councilor Alice Hardesty, who served on the Ashland Housing Commission before winning a seat on the council, said the project is not perfect, but it is the best opportunity that she's seen.

"It would be very beneficial to the city to have more kids, more families and less rent-burdened people," she said.

Ashland ranks 15th out of 134 cities and counties in Oregon when it comes to households burdened by housing payments. That means they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, according to Housing Authority figures.

In Ashland, 50 percent of households are burdened by housing costs — and that doesn't include Southern Oregon University students, Goldman said.

The average person working in Ashland's leisure and hospitality industry earns $13,600 per year, he said.

A family of four must make $31,740 or less to qualify for a unit in the planned Clay Street project. A single person could make up to $22,200.

The majority of workers in Ashland — 55 percent — travel in from other cities to work here.

Goldman said construction of the units will help provide jobs for construction workers, who have been idled by the real estate slump and slowdown in new home building.

The Housing Authority will apply for $11,230,000 in state and federal funding to build the project, he said.

Providing affordable housing in Ashland is a high priority for the state, which administers the state and federal housing money, said Karen Clearwater of Oregon Housing and Community Services.

To get the land on Clay Street, the city will give $620,000 in cash, land on Strawberry Lane valued at $1.2 million and a small parking lot on Lithia Way valued at $500,000. The Housing Authority will kick in $1.28 million in cash.

The total value of the assets is $3.6 million.

A June appraisal pegged the value of the Clay Street land at $3.2 million, down from an appraised value of $3.94 million in July 2007.

Local developer Evan Archerd said some people have raised concerns that the city is not getting a good deal because of the drop in appraised value of the Clay Street land. But he said the value of the city's Strawberry Lane lots has also probably fallen, along with the development potential for the small city parking lot downtown.

Resident Eric Dukes said with the economy in a downturn, now is not the time for the city to be making a "discretionary purchase" to buy affordable housing.

"My belt is tight. Everyone else's belt is tight. I ask the city to do the same," he said.

In addition to providing land for affordable housing, the Clay Street property has room for a park. However, the Ashland Parks Department would have to buy that land from the city.

Parks Commissioners are exploring whether to sell two acres of 10 acres of undeveloped park land known as the Westwood property. That has upset neighbors and other residents who enjoy the park land in Ashland's hills.

In a nearly unanimous vote, Councilors Hardesty, Russ Silbiger, Cate Hartzell, Eric Navickas and Kate Jackson voted for the project. Councilor David Chapman voted against it, saying that he wanted to know more specifics about the development plans. The mayor votes only to break ties.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com. To post a comment, visit www.dailytidings.com.