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. Bus tour shows blight ' and hope

Medford City Council members saw an example of blight ' and how the city and landlords can work together to improve a property ' when they took a bus tour of west Medford recently.

The bus stopped in front of two homes in disrepair on Second Street across from the refurbished McLoughlin Middle School.

This is a classic example of an absentee landlord, said Councilman Sal Esquivel.

Speaking on the bus microphone, Esquivel described broken window frames that let rain and heat into the house, trash piles in the back alley and the city's efforts to get the owner to fix it.

Medford housing inspector Derek Zwagerman worked with the property owners, who hauled about four pickup loads of garbage off the property. There is still a list of things to fix, including missing windows, a sagging roofline on the porch and hazardous wiring in an upstairs bedroom.

Once everything gets cleaned up, we've asked the homeowners to let us know and we'll go back and do another site visit, Zwagerman said.

One of the property owners, Berta Giffin, said she inherited the home from her mother, who lived in it for more than 25 years. The home was broken into while it sat vacant, Giffin said. When it was rented, the occupants refused to pay the &

36;400 rent. And they stacked trash in a dilapidated shed behind the house instead of using the garbage can Giffin provided.

We brought in a 40-yard Dumpster so we could haul away trash and we tore down the garage, Giffin said. We will trim the trees and redo the front porch. We're trying to make a start. My son is helping me. — — — West Medford gets some special attention from city officials, after the council decides the area could use a hand

Mary Brockbank's flower beds and cropped lawn look like a page from Sunset Magazine.

It was pretty run-down when we first started renting here, and we put in new landscape, the Palm Street resident said.

It seems to be more affordable on this side of town. There are older homes. Some of them are well-cared for and some of them are not.

Brockbank lives near the place where Medford got its start in 1885, a part of town that concerns the Medford City Council. Last month, Associate City Planner Bianca Petrou took council members on a bus tour of west Medford to point out problems with zoning, housing designs and code violations.

They found both manicured landscapes and disheveled yards. They drove historic, tree-lined Oakdale Avenue, with its mansion-like edifices, and they headed down 11th Street, with many abandoned vehicles and weeds growing in the yards. On Brockbank's Palm Street, they found examples of both.

The following week, council members decided to hire a code enforcement officer to write tickets for yard trash, illegally parked vehicles or housing code violations.

Some yards in west Medford may be unkempt because residents work several jobs to make ends meet and don't have time or money to fix up their places, Brockbank said.

My husband mows both our neighbors' lawns because they are single mothers, said Brockbank, who used to own five acres in Sams Valley before her husband was laid off from Tyco International in White City. He's now trained as a tile setter and owns Jack's Custom Tile and Construction in Medford.

They would buy a home if they could afford it, she said, noting that the 1,100-square-foot house across the street listed for &

36;119,900 was beyond their price range.

You can't look down on people who don't have the means, she said.

Council members hope to encourage more owner-occupied housing in west Medford, where 60 percent of the homes are rentals, compared to 42 percent citywide. Council members created an advisory housing commission and discussed offering low-interest home loans as ways to facilitate this goal. They reason that those who invest in their homes are more likely to keep them maintained.

But property managers say the rising cost of houses keep many people in rentals.

You're always going to have people who want to rent, said Craig Horton, who has been a member for 27 years of the Southern Oregon Rental Owners Association. He and his wife own Medford Better Housing, a property management company.

There are some people who can't afford to buy a house, can't afford the payments, the down payment, the property taxes, Horton said.

One way the City Council could improve blighted areas in west Medford is to offer landlords home improvement grants or loans, he suggested. Horton received a &

36;2,500 interest-free loan about five years ago to improve the understructure of one of his rentals.

It's a win-win, Horton said. It allows a landlord to upgrade existing property and uses taxpayer money to benefit the community.

He also favors reducing or waving system development charges and permit fees in west Medford to encourage home upgrades.

If you've got property, you've got to maintain it. If you take care of people who rent from you, they will stay a long time.

Councilman Bill Moore, who lives in east Medford, believes part of the solution may be using tax increment financing to purchase and revitalize property.

We keep talking about affordable housing, but developers will build houses that sell, said Moore, who favors creating another urban renewal district in west Medford. They acquire land, knock down the cheap rental that sits on it and build more expensive things. We're not going to get anybody to build affordable housing unless we work with them.

A local contractor, Joe Deascentis, said it's hard to provide affordable housing when city fees are so high.

Deascentis has torn down a drug house on Second Avenue and is replacing it with a duplex. He paid &

36;6,900 in system development charges and building permits on the project. He also spent an extra &

36;2,800 and suffered a two-week delay on the project after he received conflicting information from Medford building inspectors about foundation work.

I think the city should have code exceptions or rebates on permits in west Medford when a contractor is helping to improve a neighborhood, said Deascentis, whose family has been in the building trade for 25 years.

One unit of the duplex has three bedrooms and two baths, while the other has one bedroom and one bath. Both are wired for cable Internet, have washer and dryer hookups and sliding doors leading to decks in the master bedrooms. The two units will be listed for &


Councilman John Michaels lives down the street from the duplex and criticized its design during the City Council bus tour.

You can see it doesn't fit in the neighborhood, he told council members. The carport faces the street and the living quarters are in the back. But other houses have front porches and windows facing the street.

The lot was too narrow and the city's setback requirements too strict to allow other designs, Deascentis said.

We couldn't make it look like the house next door, with a front porch and lawn, he said.

There are 2,200 west Medford lots that could have the same fate ' the original home bulldozed and a duplex put up, said planner Petrou. She recently presented to the City Council her report about the west Medford study area that's bordered by Fir Street, Jackson Street, Stewart Avenue and the city limits to the west.

The density of housing citywide is roughly 4.8 units per acre, compared to 5.2 dwellings per acre in west Medford, Petrou said. West Medford also has more people per household than east Medford.

One reason we studied zoning and whether we should allow duplexes on smaller lots is because we are concerned about density, said Councilman Sal Esquivel, who lives near downtown.

Why should west Medford get all the duplexes and triplexes and east Medford get all the single family residences? Esquivel said. Density needs to be on an equal basis.

Mary Brockbank rents this house on Palm Street in west Medford with her cat, Norman, and her husband, Jack. Though west Medford is peppered with well-maintained places like the Brockbanks?, it also has many blighted areas. Click the photo to see a larger (31k) version. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Mail Tribune Jim Craven