The four candidates running for Ward 3 in northwest Medford say the city could do more to solve a housing crisis that plagues their neighborhoods, which have seen too much substandard housing, crime, high unemployment and poverty.
Kristen "Kay" Brooks, Don Libby, Chad McComas and Curt Turner also decry the neglect of the Liberty Park neighborhood, between Central and Riverside avenues, which was supposed to get some of the $70 million in redevelopment dollars spent by the city. Ultimately, the neighborhood got a small park.
Brooks said Liberty Park is an example of how west Medford receives fewer benefits from the city than the east side of town.
"I would say it's blatantly disgraceful," Brooks said.
Brooks said the empty car lots on Central Avenue provide an opportunity to build a boulevard-style park with shopping and green areas.
One of her big concerns, shared by other candidates, is a competitive housing market, lack of rentals and a large number of absentee landlords who help create substandard housing in west Medford.
"When you're in a crisis state, people are more likely to settle for substandard housing or are less likely to complain about fixing it," she said.
One solution is to change zoning and develop new regulations to encourage higher-density housing, she said. The city could change its fee structure to encourage these types of developments as well, she said.
Besides increasing housing stock, Brooks said she'd like to see more affordable housing, which means housing costs should equate to about 30 percent of a family's income.
Local residents need more jobs, so attracting more business and industry to the area is extremely important, Brooks said.
Brooks doesn't blame any one group, noting that many west Medford voters feel disenfranchised because they live in inadequate housing, endure poverty and can’t find jobs.
"We have a lot of instability," she said.
A member of the city Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee, Brooks said west Medford doesn't have the kind of bike and pedestrian trail system developed in east Medford.
Her suggestion is for the city to identify alleys that aren't being used and convert them into trails to offer a safer way for kids to get to schools.
"Let's identify all the alleyways that people don't use to get into their house or garage," she said. "Let's start with those."
Libby said he doesn't believe in using tax dollars to upgrade neighborhoods but does think a better outreach program could improve the community.
In 2015, his church, Church of the Nazarene Life Path, sponsored a barbecue in Union Park after the park's grand reopening.
"There were some people there that looked a bit rough," he said. "But people start recognizing faces, and if someone walks down the street looking questionable, you find out, hey, he's pleasant to be around. He's a family man."
Libby said he thinks more of these get-togethers in parks throughout the city could help build communities. He said he went door-to-door passing out fliers for the barbecue so he could meet people and get to know the neighborhood.
"We are not there preaching the gospel," he said. "We're there trying to get the community together."
One of his biggest concerns about his ward, and west Medford in general, is the lack of sidewalks on many streets. He said the city should have a goal of installing more sidewalks and street lights, particularly in the Liberty Park neighborhood.
Despite his concerns, Libby said he doesn't think east Medford has gotten more city resources than west Medford.
"East Medford, it's just newer," he said. "It's got wider roads and a more airy feeling. We are just an older community."
He said he would encourage affordable housing, but instead of the city providing tax dollars, he said he thinks the city could reduce the cost of permits for builders in exchange for lower rents over a certain number of years.
"We could be encouraging people to put little houses on the back of their properties to help bring in more affordable housing," Libby said.
A member of the Medford Housing Commission, McComas said he and other officials are aware of the crisis in affordable housing.
"It's a huge problem," he said. "If we don't get people off the street, it causes other problems. Healthcare is more expensive, and living on the streets can cause mental illness or make it worse. It also taxes our jails, our courts and other systems."
McComas said ACCESS did a study recently that found the city spends $3 million to deal with the issues of homelessness because people are not housed.
McComas said he thinks the city should turn to nonprofits for help dealing with these issues because nonprofits are already working on solutions.
For instance, he said the Liberty Park neighborhood is undergoing a transformation of sorts with a building project undertaken by Kids Unlimited and with faith-based organizations that offer assistance to the poor. Rogue Retreat, one of the organizations McComas is involved with, has affordable housing in the Liberty Park neighborhood, and he said he would like to expand on that idea.
Walking around the neighborhoods of west Medford, McComas said he's struck by the sense of fear from some people and the high number of empty houses that become popular with vagrants.
"If we could turn those over, and somehow change our regulations so the city could deal with them quicker, we could turn them back to the nonprofits," he said.
McComas said the city also could undertake an urban renewal effort to upgrade houses.
"If we had $1 million to fix things in Liberty Park, it would change everything," he said.
Overall, McComas said there are enough organizations that have expertise handling issues facing west Medford.
"One thing that I find is generally important is the cooperative spirit of the organizations trying to deal with these problems," he said.
Despite calls Friday and Monday, Turner couldn't be reached for comment for this story. But in an interview with the other candidates before the Mail Tribune Editorial Board last week, Turner noted that Medford has a lot of potential for growth and improvement to make it an attractive place to stay and raise families.
"We're the hub, but everything happens around us," he said.
Turner said as he talks with people in his ward, one of their top desires is to see drug houses closed and the meth and heroin off the streets. They also don't feel safe at night because of poor street lighting.
He believes the city could finance vacant houses and sell them at an affordable price to residents so they would no longer have to rent. He also believes establishing an enterprise zone could help bring living-wage jobs to Medford so that children don't have to leave to find good jobs once they've grown.
He said providing affordable housing and resources such as Drug Court could go a long way toward helping solve west Medford's problems.
— Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.