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Short-term, long-term housing issues face city

ASHLAND — With a housing market decimated by Jackson County wildfires, Ashland City Council turned its attention Tuesday to price gouging and rate hikes as potentially long-term problems face displaced and low-income residents.

City Councilor Julie Akins noted some property owners in other disaster areas around the country — including the Camp fire in Paradise, California, in 2018 — profited from crises by raising rates — sometimes double or triple — amid rapidly increasing demand.

Entire mobile home communities succumbed to the Almeda fire, and many are not covered by insurance, she said.

During Tuesday’s council meeting, City Attorney David Lohman said state statute prohibit cities from enacting their own laws to control rent prices, except in emergencies.

Some questions remain as to whether the statute applies to Ashland now, as the law doesn’t define the necessary location of the disaster relative to housing, so the exception only applies during the duration of an emergency.

While the law may cover short-term issues, such as rent caps on existing rentals, the long-term implications of a lack of housing go far beyond any existing emergency declaration, he said.

Under one option, the city could enact an ordinance requiring residential landlords to pay for a portion of relocation expenses if they execute a no-cause eviction or raise rent more than a certain amount in one year, Lohman said. In theory, the option would reduce new vacancies.

Still, the council must consider how much government intrusion into the marketplace is appropriate without impeding new housing development — a difficult balance to strike.

Enforcement of any rent caps or ordinances related to housing is problematic, because few resources exist to police problems surrounding landlord-tenant issues, Lohman said.

City Councilor Tonya Graham said the current situation illustrates a pivotal social equity issue in post-disaster scenarios. Displaced people may not have been directly impacted by a disaster, but could be forced out of low-income housing by jacked-up prices, creating a ripple effect, she said.

Such a large-scale discussion will likely be addressed in the Oregon Legislature, Graham speculated, because fires across the state have generated a need for discussion of multi-year rent control at every level of government. Executive orders and city ordinances may cover short-term concerns, but state recovery is expected to be a years-long multi-agency process.

The Ashland city administrator retains substantial control over implementation of price controls on rent if necessary, which may act as “belt and suspenders” in line with state law, Lohman said.

With Federal Emergency Management Agency resources inbound, city leaders intend to standardize a method of updating city staff and the public about directives through the governor’s office, Jackson County Emergency Operations Center and FEMA regarding housing redevelopment.

FEMA won’t make the community whole on its own, but with a community filling in gaps through grassroots initiatives, the city of Ashland is on track for a strong confluence of formal processes and civic response, Graham said.

In cooperation with Southern Oregon University, Ashland Parks and Recreation Director Michael Black is compiling a list of landholders who may have longer-term space for FEMA trailers.

“When they come to the region, we need to be ready to offer places for trailers to go, so that FEMA can get in, move their stuff in with the least amount of resistance; because we are in competition for resources with a lot of different communities throughout the West,” Black said.

AP FILE - This April 22, 2017 file photo shows For Rent signs in front of a house in Salem, Ore