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Ashland: hamlet for rich, famous'

Editorial

Growing housing costs mix poorly with the city's no-growth policy

Once a quiet mill town with a small college and a budding Shakespearean company, Ashland now is sometimes labeled as a hamlet for the elite and the wealthy. Those who know the town also know that's not entirely fair, because there remain many working-class families and individuals in a city known for its diversity.

But then comes the news that the planning director of Vail, Colo. turned down a similar job in Ashland in large part because of the sky-high housing prices. That grabs your attention because Vail is already well-know as a home for the rich and famous, and an expensive home at that.

It also suggests that Ashland officials need to step back and examine some of their basic philosophies about managing growth unless they want their city to follow the same path.

The difficulty of finding affordable housing in Ashland has been well-docmented. Two elementary schools have closed, the result of a declining base of young families. Housing prices in all of Southern Oregon have climbed too high, too fast, but Ashland leads the pack with a median sales price in December of &

36;415,000, versus a median price in all Jackson County cities of &

36;289,000. The current median asking price in Ashland is &

36;549,000.

The problem attracted more headlines when Ashland's top pick for director of community development, Russell Forrest, turned down the position because he couldn't afford to buy a home and move his family here. Forrest said the cost of a home in Ashland was a couple of hundred thousand dollars higher than a comparable home in the small town where he and his wife now live near Vail.

As a town that depends greatly on tourism, Ashland has its fair share of low-paying sales and clerical jobs. Those people can scarcely be expected to afford housing in a city where a typical one-bedroom apartment rents for &

36;500 or more a month and a house is not even within the realm of possibilities.

— Despite its growing number of million-dollar homes, Ashland has a significant amount of poverty. Census reports at the end of the '90s showed Ashland matched the county poverty rate of 12.5 percent, but the city's percentage had climbed, while it dropped elsewhere. At least part of that is attributable to the amount of money Ashlanders have to spend on housing.

There's no easy solution. Ashland city leaders are acutely aware of the problem and seem truly concerned about doing what they can to remedy it.

Except in one area: The city has fought efforts to expand its growth boundaries. In a recent regional growth plan, Ashland was the only city to submit a plan calling for no ' zero ' new land to be added to accommodate population growth over the next 50 years. City officials prefer it grows through infill ' although the idea of creating denser development has run into opposition and some innovative mixed-use developments have been rejected.

The no-growth mantra has two negative effects: It makes the limited land now available even more expensive (see Econ 101 ' The Rule of Supply and Demand). Neither does it really control growth, but instead just shifts the problem to other cities in the region.

Ashland residents and officials should continue their discussions about how to develop affordable housing. But they also need to face the reality that if they do not allow more buildable land, the city will see its families and schools shrink and its diversity and vitality diminish.