Ashland resident Mara K. Owens, homeless off and on since 2005, is delighted to now live in an affordable apartment, but worries about others who struggle to make rent. As a disabled senior, she fears Ashland is becoming "a playground for the rich," a consistent theme in an Southern Oregon Tenants Union protest on the downtown Plaza Thursday as part of the National Renters’ Week of Action.

A vocal crowd of about 20 people gathered to push back against what the group feels is a housing crisis in the city. “I have friends who buy houses here and live in them 10 percent of the time," said Owens. "They aren’t interested in seeing anything change. They don’t care.”

“We are in a renter’s state of emergency,” said Charles Douglas, a rally organizer and a former Service Employees International Union chapter president. “Employees are priced out. It isn’t sustainable to pay more than 40 percent in rent and utilities when the raise you get is 1 percent per year.”

Echoing Owens, Douglas warned the assembled crowd, “It’ll become a playground for the rich and retired.”

Josh Gross, a local theater company owner, told the group he had to postpone his latest play production when “every employee got evicted or had to move.” He suggested as a small business owner this has to factor into his thinking. “Everyone who owns a business has to think about this.”

Gross suggested property managers such as CPM allow people to be on the list for more than one property at a time so they have hope of eventually becoming first on the list.

“What’s the end game? Are people supposed to ride buses from White City to wash dishes?” Gross asked the group, which waved signs demanding an end to no-fault evictions and in favor of lower rents.

Amanda Sager, chapter president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, shared her sense of discouragement with the group. “I’m tired of seeing my friends having to choose between rent and food,” Sager said, adding that she sees Ashland espousing the virtues of human rights and inclusivity but, she says, the less-than-2 percent rental vacancy rate and no-cause evictions strip young working people of that dignity. “Is Ashland a facade or truly living up to the values of human rights and inclusion?” Sager asked.

The Tenants Union says it wants to do away with no-cause evictions. It was on the Oregon Legislature’s agenda, but a bill to stop no-cause evictions perished in the senate. Sager said the city of Ashland cannot wait for the state to lead. She suggested the city declare a housing state of emergency and enact ordinances which allow for rent control, an end to no-fault evictions and a 24 hour, seven day per week emergency shelter for those pushed into homelessness.

“We need to include workers in our vision of justice,” she told the crowd. “Rents are spiraling in this city. A majority of my fellow workers cannot afford to live in the town where they work.”

The crowd began to chant, “Stand up! Fight Back!”

While the city of Ashland is aware of the low vacancy rates and increasing rents, the median rent for Ashland is now $1,200 per month, according to RentJungle.com, which says that is a 23.5 percent increase from last year when the average rent was $931.

No immediate solutions to the housing situation are forthcoming. The city has prioritized funding of the Affordable Housing Trust Fund to assist in the creation of affordable housing and it has also given grants to organizations tasked with providing services to assist renters in emergency situations. It has also opened an emergency shelter three nights per week at Pioneer Hall.

The City Council has also been looking at other options to encourage the building of more affordable housing, such as an proposal to change zoning regulations to allow cottage housing with a greater density of smaller, more affordable homes.

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