Adrian Ashton, a single mother of two, has been looking for two years for a place of her own.
She works for the food-service company Sodexo, in both Jackson and Josephine counties. She and her kids live in Medford with her aunt, who wants to sell the house and move to a retirement home but can't because her family needs the space.
"At this point, I'm looking for a shed," Ashton, 39, said wryly. "I'm not being picky anymore."
Ashton has been looking all over, including in Grants Pass, but faces a stark reality: Josephine County ranked worst in Oregon for counties with "severe housing" problems last year, according to a study by the University of Wisconsin's School of Medicine and Public Health.
In Josephine County, 26 percent of households face "severe" challenges, compared to 24 percent in Jackson County. Those are the two worst counties on the list.
The problem here is even more acute than in Multnomah, where an overheated housing market in Portland has sparked state legislation that would set rent controls and restrict no-cause evictions.
The Wisconsin study looks at all kinds of housing problems, but locally the problem mostly stems from affordability issues.
There are four categories of problems that can result in a household being classified as facing severe challenges: overcrowding, high cost relative to income, lack of a kitchen, and lack of adequate plumbing.
Amanda Jovaag, the study's data specialist, said that about 7,500 out of 8,780 severe households in Josephine County were in that category because of cost.
"That's about 80 to 90 percent," Jovaag said. "And that's really what we've found all over — that the problem that accounts for most severe housing (problems) in most places is cost-related."
A December series by the Daily Courier found there isn't enough rental housing to keep prices affordable. The area has a low vacancy rate, causing a supply deficit that pushes up rental rates.
"Places that used to be hundreds are now in the thousands. … And a lot of these places want three times the monthly rent just to move in," Ashton said. "If I had that kind of money I would be looking to get my own house."
Most studies define severe housing costs or rent-burdened households as families that pay more than 30 percent of their incomes on rent. About half of all renters in Southern Oregon pay at least that much per month, according to a Harvard study.
It's not that developers aren't building, it's that new construction is responding to different factors than what renters need.
The biggest housing development in Grants Pass is the large Northridge Homes site already underway in the Redwood district.
Northridge Homes Sales Manager Ken Brinkerhoff said that 2016 was a good year for development, and so far 2017 is shaping up as another good one.
"Some of our homes have sold before they're even finished," Brinkerhoff said.
The 110-unit development called Summerfield Estates is nearing completion. A 57-lot expansion is already planned on the adjacent land.
Development in Grants Pass plummeted immediately following the recession, but it has finally picked up in the last few years. Last year, 139 new residential units were approved by the city of Grants Pass, mirroring the trend of increased development in the area.
But, Brinkerhoff says, a lot of California retirees flush with equity are moving to the area and buying up the homes.
"Our properties are driven by the California market," Brinkerhoff said. "And a lot of people we sell to are out-of-state folks who want more for their money and less upkeep."
People can buy a house here for about half the price it would go for in the Golden State. For one of the Northridge homes, a California broker would likely ask for at least $450,000. Here, they go for about $275,000.
It doesn't help that more people are renting rather than buying. In Grants Pass, about a third of all residents rent their homes, according to the Harvard study.
As housing development has picked up, apartments and other multifamily units have lagged.
Locally, zero new multifamily units were developed last year and only a handful of duplexes.
With population steadily rising and housing plucking along at only a single-family pace, vacancy rates are not improving, meaning rents are going to continue to price out lower-income families and even some middle-class families with more resources.
With vacancies so low, everyone is competing for a limited pool of rentals.
"It's just frustrating because, even when I find a place, I'll call about it and they'll say that everyone's already ahead of us in line," Ashton said.
Even though Josephine County needs more apartments, developers are shying away from building them when single-family units are flying off the lots.
"We have developed small apartments in the past, but they're a little more difficult and certainly more risky," said Gary Jantzer, Northridge project manager. "Single-family lots always seem best in the long run. During weaker economic times, the apartments themselves were a little bit more difficult to make money on."
City and county officials have noticed this lack of large-scale projects, and they've been looking into ways for government to encourage developers to fill the hole.
One approach that has come up at Grants Pass City Council discussions in recent months is the ability to reduce development fees when property owners fill in empty spaces on lots. These are lots where one house sits but could hold several, maybe even some apartments or duplexes.
The county could also reduce the fees and application costs that developers pay in order to build here. Other remedies might include rezoning lots to allow for higher-density developments.
Since 2012, Grants Pass and its surrounding area has been classified as a "metropolitan area" by the federal government, giving the city access to federal Community Development Block Grants, which can be used to invest in affordable housing programs. The city received $275,000 in CDBG funding in 2015, and it increased to about $300,000 last year.
A little more than $100,000 is slated for affordable housing programs and things like emergency housing. The catch is that neither the city nor county has a public housing program, as officials have stated a hesitation to get into the rental business.
"The money we get from HUD isn't enough to jumpstart a program like that," said city grants specialist Scott Lindberg.
With local government not wanting to build its own affordable housing, leveraging funds through local programs may be the only way to address the needs of people like Ashton.
Local programs provide a more direct service than federal and state programs like Section 8, at least in Ashton's experience.
"Section 8 has a waiting list that's three or four years out right now," she said.
The constant rejection from hunting for housing takes its toll.
Said Ashton: "It's like you get so close, you get a taste, and the door is just slammed in your face."
— Reach reporter Troy Shinn at 541-474-3806 or firstname.lastname@example.org