Ashland is home to an amazing diversity of people — liberals, conservatives, business people, old hippies, the rich and the poor. But while it offers them a city to call home, for far too many that offer is an ironic cruelty — love Ashland as they may, they cannot afford to live in Ashland, let alone even dream of owning a home here.
The Ashland City Council took a step toward improving that situation last week when it approved a land swap that will allow an affordable housing project to move forward.
The council agreed to partner with the Jackson County Housing Authority to buy 10 acres of land on Clay Street, where plans are in the works to build a 60-unit complex of affordable apartments. Mayor John Morrison called it "an extraordinary opportunity for the city" and we agree.
Ashland's affordable housing difficulties are well documented. The city ranks 15th out of 134 cities in the state in homes in which more than 30 percent of families' income is spent on housing. The city estimates that a full half of the city's residents, excluding university students, are "burdened" by housing costs — in other words, paying more than they really can afford.
For the three months ending Oct. 31, the Southern Oregon Multiple Listing Service reports the median sale price of an existing home in Ashland was $390,000. For the remainder of the county, it was $237,500.
While that puts a burden on low- and middle-income homeowners and renters, it also is a burden for the entire city. The Ashland School District has closed two elementary schools in recent years due to declining enrollment. The simple truth is that most young families cannot afford to live in Ashland. More than half of employees in the city must drive here each day from other communities. The truth is that most wage earners cannot afford to live in Ashland.
We applaud the city's efforts to expand the base of affordable housing by approving the land swap. But that will put only a small dent in the problem, a dent made even smaller because an existing 52-unit apartment building has just applied to be removed from affordable housing status.
The city of Ashland cannot afford to take on the financial burden of providing affordable housing by itself. In fact some are questioning whether it can afford the $620,000, plus land, that it will give up to help buy the Clay Street site. But it can make housing more affordable by its planning actions.
Concerns over growth have constrained the city from expanding its boundaries and as a result the basic rules of supply and demand have kicked in. Housing materials are not more expensive in Ashland than in Medford or Phoenix, but land certainly is. Despite the paeans to infill, that lack of land has been exacerbated by city decisions blocking downtown residential developments.
We do not want subdivisions crawling up the side of Grizzly Peak, but Ashland must find ways to make more land available for housing, whether it's existing properties within city limits or marginal farmland adjacent to the boundaries. Planning for 60 units of affordable housing is a start, but it is only a start.