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Housing woes hit affordability project

An organization that provided affordable housing in the Rogue Valley for 20 years has closed down, shuttered by troubles with an Ashland project and a real estate crash that left a glut of cheap homes on the market.

Medford-based GroundWorks Community Development, formerly known as the Rogue Valley Community Development Corp., dissolved at the end of 2011 after finishing the Rice Park affordable housing project near the Ashland Dog Park, said John Wheeler, the group's former executive director.

"Once we finished Rice Park and the families moved in, we took a look at the books and we didn't have what it took to carry on," he said. "The board decided to dissolve it."

Wheeler said the major problem for GroundWorks was that it was built on the mutual self-help model, in which residents of a planned affordable housing project team up to build their own homes. In addition, its cost to build homes exceeded the amount the houses would appraise for, so it couldn't get grants or loans to build. And with the drop in housing prices, people had more affordable options, he said.

"The clients were less inclined to build their own affordable home because there were affordably priced houses on the market," Wheeler said.

In the past, GroundWorks was able to find people to fill slots for housing construction projects within a few months. When it recently tried to find people for a planned project that would have been built in Ashland or Medford, GroundWorks identified no qualified applicants after four months of recruiting, Wheeler said.

People who built their homes through GroundWorks were required to work 32 hours each week on construction. They could have family members and friends put in half the hours.

GroundWorks and its clients finished two affordable housing projects in Ashland in about one year for each project.

But GroundWorks and a fresh batch of clients ran into multiple hurdles on the Rice Park project, located off Nevada Street.

Residents who built eight homes for Rice Park's first phase had to put in several months of extra work beyond the year they had expected to spend.

At the beginning of the project, someone broke into a tool storage shed and stole $10,000 worth of power tools needed for construction.

Barb Barasa had hoped to live in Rice Park, but said she dropped out of the program after putting in more than 1,000 hours of work. She said delays and initial problems with project supervision caused her to walk away.

The affordable housing project was meant to be built alongside the Verde Village subdivision of environmentally friendly, market-rate homes.

But the real estate crash extinguished the Verde Village project when financing for new market-rate home construction disappeared.

Verde Village was going to put in infrastructure for both the market-rate subdivision and the Rice Park project, but GroundWorks ended up having to put in the infrastructure for the affordable housing, said Ashland Housing Program Specialist Linda Reid.

GroundWorks ended up paying for cost overruns on Rice Park's 15 homes in order to keep promises made to the participating families about what their costs would be, Wheeler said.

Under GroundWorks' model, the families work on the houses but also carry relatively inexpensive mortgages.

Although GroundWorks has folded, the Roseburg-based nonprofit NeighborWorks Umpqua has taken over GroundWorks' three completed affordable housing projects in Ashland and will continue to operate them as affordable housing, Wheeler said.

"They are a wonderful organization doing more and more work in Southern Oregon," he said. "They understand mutual self-help projects. They are a stable organization. It will be safe for the families and they will keep the affordable housing functioning as we envisioned."

Reid said GroundWorks' demise means there is a narrower pool of groups providing affordable housing in the Rogue Valley.

However, organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, the Ashland Community Land Trust, ACCESS and the Jackson County Housing Authority remain, she said.

NeighborWorks Umpqua is now on the Rogue Valley housing scene, and private developers can build affordable housing as well, Reid said.

But the future for housing programs in which clients build their own homes is uncertain in an era of depressed real estate prices.

A GroundWorks affordable housing project planned next to undeveloped parkland on upper Clay Street in Ashland has been abandoned.

The city is selling the land to the Ashland Parks and Recreation Department for $124,600. The land will be used to expand the size of a park that will be developed there someday, Parks Director Don Robertson said.

Ashland Daily Tidings reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.

Barb Barasa was among those who worked to build her own home in the GroundWorks’ Rice Park project in Ashland but dropped out of the program before finishing the project. Groundworks has dissolved, ending a 20-year program that helped create affordable housing in the Rogue Valley. - Jamie Lusch