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Council Corner: Addressing affordable housing

Can we really achieve affordable housing in Ashland?

There is definitely a need for housing affordability in Ashland. Housing in Ashland costs more than in many of the surrounding communities.

On one hand this is a good thing. It shows that the previous planning and investments the community has made have paid off and have resulted in a place many want to live. On the other hand, it has forced many to leave that cannot afford to live here.

Can we cure this? Depending on the directions we choose, this may not be a cure we would want. Is there a way to reduce some of the impacts of the housing costs? I believe so, and there are a couple of positive steps we can take to accomplish this.

One step may be redefining affordable housing to what it really is and then addressing that. The real name should be subsidized housing.

The cost to build and the land costs are pretty much fixed. In Ashland there is a limited supply of buildable land, which sets the price, and the labor and materials costs won’t vary that much for the general housing market.

A few of the subsidies the city currently provides to offset these costs are density bonuses, simplified auxiliary dwelling permits and waived development fees for qualifying projects. A future subsidy the council is looking at is the housing trust fund, which can be leveraged as an incentive to get more units. And there is a push for a tiny house subsidy.

These help address one side of the problem. Affordability may not be something that can be built into the price, but it might be something that can be purchased.

The second step is to start a community-wide discussion of affordable housing. Not for just the advocates; they are not the ones most impacted by the changes. But to include the neighborhoods where densities will be increased and different housing types will be introduced into historically lower density neighborhoods.

In the past few years there have been several projects proposed for or including affordable housing. A few have been built, but some have been halted or diminished not for strictly monetary reasons but for other concerns.

In many of the cases the decision not to build has been due to perceived neighborhood changes. Changes to existing trees, views, parking, traffic patterns and other impacts have been used to prevent affordability from happening.

Just the costs involved in going through the planning and appeals process can cripple a project, affordable or market-rate. Dealing with the additional density, changes to the character of existing neighborhoods and the addition of buildings that may not fit the historic patterns of development the residents are used to is at least as big a challenge as the financing.

In some cities, in order to avoid these changes, neighborhoods are looking to registering for historic status. In Ashland that can be an issue because most of our higher density zoned land is in or adjacent to historic zones and developed at below designated densities. This leaves the lower-density zoned lands to accept the additional housing, which may be less suited to handle those impacts. A continued community-wide discussion might work out these issues before the projects are ready to be funded and built and more cost-effective solutions could be the result.

I don’t feel there is the funding to make housing affordable for all who want to live here without having a discussion of all the other issues and requirements that affect the cost of housing. The economy and the tax base are not large enough, and eventually the funding mechanism by itself could be the reason Ashland is not affordable and housing costs could be moved farther down the list.

Everyone has a stake in this and the bigger discussion of all the issues surrounding this problem needs to be undertaken. Without this discussion, the issue won’t be fully understood, and we may end up spending a lot of money just to get where we are now but only more frustrated.

— Michael Morris is a member of the Ashland City Council.