Southern Oregon University students are preparing for a real-time lesson in civic engagement. They are planning to ask the Ashland City Council to consider them a protected class when it comes to housing. The student leadership group, the Associated Students of Southern Oregon University say rental adds, reading “no students’ are discriminatory and punishing in an already difficult housing market.

The students huddled in groups around the Stevenson Union on campus last Wednesday to practice speaking as if they were making a presentation to the council, which they hope leads to allowing them more housing options. "Many students struggle to find off-campus housing in Ashland," the argument went. "It is common to see housing ads that say 'no students' or for property managers to take an application fee, only to deny an applicant just because they are a student. That is unfair to responsible students who would make good renters.”

A lack of affordable housing adversely affects many in Ashland. It’s largely due to a very low vacancy rate, estimated at about 1 percent according to the Southern Oregon Rental Owners Association. To put that number into perspective, of the possible 6,000 units available, only about 60 are available to rent at any given time, regardless of price. Compare that to New York City with its famed tight rental market, which has a 3.5 percent vacancy rate.

And for students who face an additional hurdle, many say it’s nearly impossible. They describe renting spaces in driveways so they can sleep in their van at a cost of 200 dollars per month, or a spot on the couch at that same rate. It’s not unusual to have five or six students living in two- or three-bedroom houses. A student who didn’t want to be named admitted to sometimes renting out his couch or garage without telling his landlord. “It happens all the time," he said. "I’ve seen people running electrical cords out the window to campers and charging rent. Sometimes it’s the only place people have to go.”

Association Students of SOU plans to ask the Ashland City Council to pass an ordinance which stops the practice of refusing to rent to students. They claim other communities have had success with this strategy and they want that same policy in Ashland. “Landlords should be able to make rules about behavior," they said, "but they shouldn’t be allowed to reject applicants or charge higher fees based on stereotypes.”

Other university towns such as Madison, Wisc., make it illegal to refuse to rent to students. They are listed as a specific class. Many other states do not allow age to play a factor in determining renters, which also helps students. But Oregon state law does not have either of those provisions. The ASSOU is requesting that Ashland adopt similar laws as Madison. They are reaching out to students to make the point, saying, “ASSOU wants students to have a fair chance at off-campus housing. We have been working towards this for years, and need your stories of being wrongfully discriminated against to show the City Council how this negatively affects SOU students as well as the community.”

Several students and the leadership of the associated students plan on making a presentation during public comment at the Feb.16 Ashland City Council meeting.

Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins is a journalism instructor at SOU and author of “Common Miracles: Gifts from a Grateful Universe.” Email her at akinsj@sou.edu and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.