With a roughly 1 to 2 percent vacancy rate on rental housing in Ashland and the Rogue Valley, depending on the month and who you ask, the scramble to come up with solutions is ongoing. Many from city leaders to community organizers to the average resident wonders if there are any solutions that might have been overlooked.
“We can do something or be talking about it for years to come,” says Jerry Gander, an Ashland resident who works on the Southern Oregon University campus as the executive chef at Stevenson Union.
His idea is to turn the Cascade dorm rooms on Indiana Street above Siskiyou Boulevard, which are now vacant, into affordable housing units for students and others who are hard pressed to find a place to rent. Gander estimates there are roughly 600 possible accommodations for students and single people going unused.
“It’s a viable alternative," he says. "For college students, it’s perfect. You might have single people who also don’t want to pay $1,000 per month for an apartment.”
Gander acknowledges the university closed the Cascade dorms because they are more than 50 years old and energy inefficient. The dorms, when open, used 60 percent of the campus's steam heat, according to SOU.
The university website said in 2011, when it was deciding to decommission Cascade, “It has outlived its useful life and is prohibitively expensive to renovate,” according to then-Vice President of Student Affairs Jonathan Eldridge. SOU’s recent master plan update calls for the de-commissioning of Cascade and the shift of residential facilities and dining commons to the other side of Siskiyou Boulevard. (March 29: This paragraph has been updated to date Eldridge's comments and reflect that he is no longer with the university.)
The university followed through and opened 700 dorm rooms in 2013.
Gander understands SOU’s decision, but wonders if those buildings could now be leased or sold for housing. “There may be other problems," he said. "It’s making use of of the building rather than tear it down. It’s easier to renovate than build.”
SOU is currently using the first floor of the buildings to relocate departments as their buildings are renovated and some dorm rooms are used for international students, but most dorm rooms are not in use. Affordable housing, or any housing, has been a problem for students. Just recently a group of students in leadership approached the Ashland City Council to pass an ordinance making it more difficult to refuse to rent to students. They did this because housing is hard to come by. Some students who attended the study session told stories of sleeping in vans and renting couch space.
The Cascade Complex has floors of rooms that Gander says are not being used to house people who need it and could use it. “Here’s an idea to consider," Gander said, "I’ve never heard anyone talk about it.”
When asked about this possibility, Ryan Brown, community and media relations representative for SOU, had this to say: “Currently and for the next several years, Cascade Hall will be used as swing space to relocate other departments while major deferred maintenance projects are completed on campus. The location is an important one within the University's campus footprint, and our long-term plans include building on and continuing to utilize that integral part of our campus.”
It’s not clear if that integral part of the campus is expected to include more housing in the Cascade buildings. The university opened Raider Village in 2013, featuring two new dorm complexes. Cascade was shut down due to energy inefficiency. It’s not clear what kind of money it would take to update the buildings, but at the time the university decided not to do it, saying it would be too costly.
All the new buildings have solar panels and green energy.
Gander hopes the university has housing in mind with their plans if they intend to hang on to Cascade. “I think it’s dumb to talk about no housing," he said. "It’s right there!”
Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.