Depositing money regularly into Ashland’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund appears to have gone from concept to possibility based on the City Council’s discussion about it at Monday’s study session.

The meeting in the planning building on Winburn Way played out before a packed house as councilors asked questions of its Housing and Human Services Commission as well as experts on the subject to get more clarity about how funding the AHTF would have the largest impact to Ashland. The city has a less than 2 percent vacancy rate and rental housing prices continue to escalate, which adds to its growing homeless population.

The discussion began with questions surrounding the fund established in 2008 with a current balance of $166,000. “Right now we have around $160,000. If we aren’t able to add to it, would you recommend the focus be on the results of the housing crisis?” asked Councilor Greg Lemhouse, who has been a strong proponent of annual allocations to the fund. The councilor went on to ask if its best use would be to assist the already homeless, those soon to be homeless or to create a longer term solution around developing more housing.

Rich Rohde, chair of the city’s housing commission, answered, "all of the above." He presented a strategy based on possible funding the city might consider. For smaller amounts of money, he suggested micro-grants to those in the most desperate need. For larger funding amounts, he suggested developments specializing in affordable and low income housing.

“We’re talking about diversity and inclusion in our housing," Rohde said. "I see the tragedy of young families who can’t afford to live here. The housing trust fund is the key piece to getting this solved.”

In the audience observing was Donna Jensen, a retired high school counselor who said the lack of affordable housing is crushing for an unseen demographic on the rise — older, single women. She gets a small pension but has to supplement it by cleaning houses. Her rent is now half of her income monthly. “Here we are, all these women with an education who want to give to the community,” she said as she explained that the housing crisis is forcing women like her into what she described as increasingly difficult situations. In three years her rent has increased by $325 per month. “They don’t make repairs or fix things. They just keep the money.”

The perspective was shared by the city’s housing specialist, Linda Reid, who suggested an immediate needs approach coupled with longer term, more flexible development.

“The council could recognize what the community needs and applicants would apply. Requests for proposals could be done much in the same way as CDBG (community development and block grant) funds.”

The discussion also focused on the possibility of encouraging homeowners to build so-called "granny units" in their yards as affordable rentals. A program established recently in Portland encourages "ancillary housing units." In Portland, they pay for the construction and planning in exchange for the homeowner using the units as affordable rentals for five years. After that the units belong fully to the homeowner.

While that exact proposal was not discussed at the study session, proposals such as small grants to homeowners to offset the cost of city fees was brought up. That recommendation included mention of $7,500 grants with a requirement the structure be used for three years as a rental.

Mayor John Stromberg asked city Planner Bill Molnar how the city could be certain the units would be affordable. “We would grant it only to people who reside on the property," Molnar said. "We would expect the rental rate, based on income ratios of 120 percent of the poverty rate, to be about $900 to $950 per month.”

“If we were to fund this, I have somewhat of a reaction to the city funding the city," said Councilor Dennis Slattery. "Maybe instead of paying our own fees, we could waive the fees. Maybe we should offer something like scholarships to those who want to build these units.”

Councilor Mike Morris expressed concern about the methodology, saying creating an annual grant to the fund without knowing exactly what the money goes to seems backwards. “Instead of having a project we’re funding, we have funding and we’re creating projects. It feels like the opposite way we do things.”

Councilor Lemhouse expressed that he saw wisdom in changing the typical methodology. “I think we can do all of it. I think this is our biggest, closest, most serious problem right now. I think a dedicated revenue stream is something we can leverage.”

His sentiment was echoed by housing activist John Nasco, who addressed the council, saying, “There are 500 cities using an Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Of those, all are leveraging their fund to receive 6.5-to-one in donor dollars.”

Nasco pointed out having a fund administered by the city makes it a no-risk venture for investors and donors, but also for the city of Ashland. “It’s a lack of risk for the city. If there are not matches, the money doesn’t get spent. We can prove this model works. But if it doesn’t the city keeps the money.”

The council's study session discussion comes in the midst of a series of meetings on setting its next two-year budget. Among the items it must consider is whether or not to fund the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. The conversation was intended to assist them in making that decision.

The next budget hearing starts at 6 p.m. Thursday in the City Council Chambers, 1175 East Main St., Ashland.

— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at julieanneakins@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.