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Trying to change the affordable housing climate

Ashland has character, a vibrant history and provides a high quality of life for its residents. It’s clean and quirky, filled with a community of friendly, educated people who care about each other, their neighbors and the world at large. But, with roughly 20,000 residents, Ashland is reaching its capacity.

And, according to city Community Development Director Bill Molnar, Ashland is missing middle-income housing that is comparatively more affordable — such as townhouses, garden apartments and cottages. These are also the dwelling types that tend to offer rental opportunities, something else the city is lacking.

In 2003, the city decided it would not designate any more urban reserve areas for development. The City Council passed a resolution stating that infill would be explored instead of expansion.

A few years ago, an infill strategy for the “Transit Triangle,” the area surrounded by a loop the bus route makes in the southern part of the city, bounded by Ashland Street, Tolman Creek Road and Siskiyou Boulevard, was suggested. The area has a sizeable amount of vacant and redevelopable land that hasn’t been touched, according to the city website. Aside from the vacant space, it’s near the most trafficked areas from the bus route and a multitude of business and shopping opportunities.

Steps to relax building constraints were discussed to incentivize developers to build structures that would further some of the city’s goals of creating affordable housing, increasing transportation choices and generally revamping that area by providing additional homes and jobs.

The Planning Commission approved the ordinance and map amendments for the Transit Triangle infill strategy Tuesday night at a study session. The ordinance will now move to the council’s plate at their business meeting on Sept. 18 for a first reading and public hearing.

A market feasibility study performed by Fregonese Associates concluded that multistory buildings with units ranging from 650-700 square feet would work well with the proposed amendments to the zoning standards. It is the city’s hope that several hundred affordable residential units will be built in that area.

“The market feasibility study included a return on investment (ROI) analysis of multi-story, residential and mixed-use building prototypes on test sites in the Transit Triangle using the Envision Tomorrow (ET) model,” according to a staff report. The analysis concluded that under current zoning and land use standards, predicted commercial rents are low while residential rental rates exceed those of the current rental market.

“Without the proposed ordinance amendments, the ROI analysis projected dwelling units 1,000 square feet and larger and rental rates exceeding the amount a two-person household at median income can afford by 30 percent or more,” the report reads.

Proposed amendments provide some flexibility for builders in the Transit Triangle, such as eliminating maximum limits on residential density and increased building height allowed with building step-backs. There are also reductions in off-street parking and landscaping requirements, reduced ground floor commercial uses and the potential for multi-use buildings (where the bottom floor of the building would be dedicated for commercial use and the upper floors for residential).

The residential units developed under the Transit Triangle option would be required to be rental units. More expensive condominiums and short-term rentals such as hotels wouldn’t be allowed.

The moves come at a time when rental market prices have gone up while at the same time the vacancy rate in the region remains at historic lows, around 1 percent. Compounding the problem for the city, studies show that rental needs in Ashland (44.8 percent of single-family homes are renter occupied) are much higher than compared to the averages of the state overall (36 percent).

“According to figures released in January 2018 by the Southern Oregon Multiple Listing Service, the median sales price for existing single-family residences in Ashland in 2017 was $421,500, which was a 7.5 percent gain over 2016,” the report reads. “In contrast, the purchasing power of an Ashland household earning the median income in 2017 was $217,950 (median income for household of four).”

The report then refers to a 2015 U.S. Census Survey which states within these parameters, 46 percent of Ashland households can afford up to $875 a month for housing.

“Ashland households earning 120% of median income can afford $1,270 to $1,295 per month for housing costs. Workforce housing is considered to be 80 to 120 percent of area median income,” according to the report.

The report also said that in July 2018, rentjungle.com showed the average rental unit price in Ashland as $1,493.

“In August 2018, 31 units were listed as available. There was one unit listed below $875 a month and five units listed below $1,250. As a result, 25 of the advertised units or 81 percent of the advertised units were above the affordable monthly rent for workforce housing,” according to the report.

Contact Daily Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

Map by the city of AshlandThe so-called "Transit Triangle" runs along Ashland Street, Siskiyou Boulevard and Tolman Creek Road, with is the loop traversed by the Rogue Valley Transit District bus route that connects Ashland to the rest of the Valley.
Image via city of AshlandAn artist's conception shows the type of mixed use building with setbacks to allow for more height without dominating the skyline that would allow more density in the "Transit Triangle."