There is talk at all levels that Ashland needs affordable housing. But both Ashland and Oregon have, with a complex and nearly inscrutable web of laws, regulations and administrative rules, erected invisible walls that prevent Ashland from having affordable housing — except for a few cosmetic, subsidized units.
After the recent election, many members of the community are at risk of losing affordable health care, and many may end up disabled or ill and in need of affordable housing. Because of sky-high educational costs, many of us have student loans and other debt obligations and are in immediate need of affordable housing. Many work without a living wage and are also in immediate need of affordable housing.
Statewide Planning Goal 10 promises affordable housing for all Oregonians. It is and has been an empty promise, however. To fix the problem, we need authority to implement Goal 10. Without such authority, we will continue our failed policies.
As Goal 10 is “implemented” today, we produce documents. We hire a consultant to produce a housing needs analysis. We inventory vacant and underutilized land. We talk about infill and density. And we do nothing but talk. Perhaps we make a small, expensive improvement that is woefully inadequate to change our ugly reality.
Moreover, Ashland is the most unfair, unequal and exclusive city in the valley. The original idea — and the ideal of the social contract — was that government would provide liberty and protect human rights in exchange for the means of accomplishing these good things. To secure these good things, people would be happy to pay taxes. Equal rights would provide everyone with opportunity. Opportunity is a basic condition for a healthy society.
Nowadays, the social contract exists in a degenerate form. Government protects and increases property values for those who have the most taxable property while destroying or diminishing other values. Ashland welcomes all who can afford to live inside an invisible wall; for everyone else, Ashland is structurally exclusive.
Affordable housing is not difficult. It is not a scientific or engineering problem. It is a legal and policy problem. Fixing the problem would require a change in the hearts and minds of the leaders and people of Ashland, Jackson County and the state of Oregon. Currently, affordable housing is essentially illegal, due to zoning and other regulations. Our leaders have not recognized this, at least not in public, that I am aware of.
Our choice as a community and a state to reject affordable housing was made some time ago, when the legal and regulatory barriers were initially erected. Ashland in fact emphatically reaffirmed those barriers when it concluded the regional problem solving process by contracting with other cities to meet our housing needs — using methods known to fail.
If we would only have the heart to become a complete community, one with a physical safety net, perhaps some of those decisions could be reversed.
Among vocal community members and among the recent survey respondents, affordable housing is the most important issue facing Ashland. If we really believe that, it may be possible to win a new law and a new dawn for affordable housing. I fear taking that path may be improbable, however, because of the fear it would threaten home values. But if we do not take that path, we are profiting from inequality and exploitation.
Might we have the courage to consider such a law? My proposal is this: that the Ashland City Council pass a resolution asking for a new state law granting Ashland authority to have affordable housing. That new law could state that: “Notwithstanding any other law, regulation or administrative rule, Ashland shall realize the promise of Statewide Planning Goal 10 and have an adequate supply of affordable, sustainable housing.”
I hope we are up to the challenge.
— Mark Haneberg is a retired Ashland attorney.