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Higher density, smaller units

“If we want affordable housing in Ashland, I think we need to build it,” John Fields, an Ashland developer and former Planning Commissioner, said in a letter read at a City Council study session Monday. Fields suggested that incentives and penalties on builders may not be enough to bring the housing the community needs, when it needs it. “It takes too long. It’s crippling.” 

In a letter read out loud to the council by Mayor John Stromberg at the study session, the developer told the council the planning process is subjective and overbuilt. He said it leaves developers uncertain what will happen if they begin a process to build more apartments and houses within the city. “I feel Ashland is at a crisis. Predictability is critical.” 

Stromberg read Fields' letter into the record as councilors discussed an idea to encourage building of large-scale apartment housing in an area they’ve identified as the "Transit Triangle," since it's bounded by the Rogue Valley Transit District (RVTD) bus route that runs along Ashland Street, Tolman Creek Road and Siskiyou Boulevard. 

Planning and development consultant John Fregonese told the council the zoning requirements of no more than 30 housing units per acre hampers the ability of developers to make housing affordable. “If you make the units bigger, that’s what makes them more expensive,” he said. Fregonese said allowing more, smaller units and vertical building three stories high with reduced set-backs from roads would allow 50 to 60 units per acre, which allows rents to drop to what he argued would be "affordable," about $1,000 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. 

Fregonese also encouraged the council to consider incentives for builders, such as vertical tax credits, foregoing taxes for 10 years and, he suggested, allowing commercial property downtown to be converted to residential since the need is there. 

“More people are buying online," he said. "Commercial space is not as much in demand, but you don’t currently allow for switching to residential.” 

Mayor Stromberg suggested there needs to be a way to guarantee affordable housing if developers are given incentives. “I’m interested in locking them in at an affordable rate.” 

Meantime Councilor Greg Lemhouse expressed faith in market conditions if more units became available. “I’m pretty excited about it. The issue of affordable housing has been such a big elephant in the eight years I’ve been on the council. I think this is the best way forward.” 

Lemhouse said he thinks it’s important the city “go all in” by creating strategies for wider-scale development. “This kind of strategy to tweak our zoning and add to the inventory in a creative way seems to be a smarter way forward.” 

Councilors Rich Rosenthal, Mike Morris and Stefani Seffinger expressed some hopefulness around the idea, but wanted more specificity and other elements to be considered in affordable housing as well. “I think it’s part of a broader conversation,” said Rosenthal. Morris was pragmatic about looking at the process developers currently go through in building housing. “We spend all of our time defending what we’ve instituted. We require so many improvements and we set aside open space. It all has to get paid for.”

Councilor Seffinger said she liked the idea of creating multi-generational housing in that part of town and providing and encouraging amenities so more people want to be in the area. “It would help our parking if people were more attracted to that part of town,” she said. 

Stromberg said he’d like the council to be more aggressive about solving the housing crisis in Ashland in terms of vacancy rates and affordability. There is a less than 1 percent vacancy rate and rents have been steadily increasing as a result. “I’d like to see us be more ambitious," the mayor said. "I want to redefine affordable housing. It should be affordable for people who live here and are being forced out.” 

While no specific steps or timeline was settled on, councilors agreed they need to keep the ball in the air moving forward. There was some urgency as councilors discussed the squeeze of middle- and low-income earners in the community. “We just finished an election cycle and this was talked about by everyone," said Lemhouse. "We heard from the community.”

Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at julieanneakins@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.