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Ashland City Council studies affordable housing

A lack of affordable housing is nothing new in Ashland, but the problem has been exacerbated by the Almeda fire and the economic downturn brought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Discussions about a need for affordable housing options for low- to moderate-income households have plagued the halls of Ashland government since long before the litany of 2020 disasters began, which forced stakeholders to focus repeatedly on immediate response.

During an Ashland City Council study session Monday, councilors heard an update on long-range planning and housing development projects, which fall within the scope of a plan to create and preserve housing “that is commensurate with the incomes of Ashland’s workforce,” according to city documents.

Per the city’s housing program, long-range planning projects include revisions to administer the program more effectively and efficiently, and completion of a residential housing needs analysis, to be submitted to the state by 2022.

Community Development Director Bill Molnar shared proposed updates to the city’s affordable housing standards, which will be presented to the council Nov. 17 after public hearings and consultation with other city commissions.

“Some of the key objectives are to mend the standards to really create some clear and more predictable methodology for calculating maximum rent and purchase prices,” Molnar said.

The effort involves collaborating with nonprofit and for-profit housing developers to increase flexibility in zoning codes. Flexibility would apply to the timeline for constructing and distributing affordable housing units across various projects, and allow for a variety of housing types, Molnar said.

“While the market-rate units might be single-family detached, the affordable housing units could take on different types, such as condominiums, townhomes — as long as they’re comparable in terms of size and the number of bedrooms,” he said.

Molnar described the proposed changes — to improve efficiency and staff capacity surrounding planning and zoning, and get affordable housing units on the ground — as necessary and long overdue.

The city has found some success with the construction and conversion of buildings into accessory residential units, which fit well into neighborhoods, Molnar said. The city recently removed the requirement for a conditional use permit to construct ARUs. Last year, the council modified zoning codes so ARUs smaller than 500 square feet, attached or incorporated within a single-family home property, only require building permits.

Molnar said the success of such flexibility in permitting calls for more, such as expanding to multi-family zoning districts. For now, preliminary discussion hinges on whether a land-use permit process should remain in place when ARUs are larger than 500 square feet or located in one of Ashland’s national historic registry districts.

Building permit data reflects steady interest from the public over the past four years in continuing construction, with nearly 50% of new buildings coming in under 500 square feet, Molnar said. Only the first of 230 ARU proposals since 1991 has been appealed.

“I think the draw is they tend to fit in well in neighborhoods, and we get few complaints,” Molnar said.

But discussion cooled as old roadblocks returned to the forefront.

“I just wanted to check that the presumption is that if we make these ... smaller-size units permissible, they will make housing available at a lower cost to members of the community,” Mayor John Stromberg said. “Having seen a 600-some-square-foot unit for $400 a foot, I just think we should be honest with ourselves and watch very carefully to see if that actually achieves the purpose of what we’re trying to achieve here.”

Councilor Julie Akins raised a past proposition for a temporary ordinance to control rent rates, which the council opted out of the last time it came up, and questioned the council’s reach in controlling housing affordability.

Financial incentives for developers to meet the city’s affordability standards include eligibility for system development charge waivers, though Molnar speculated the incentive is subpar given vacancy rates for rentals. Beyond that, the city can’t do much.

State law forbids municipalities from implementing rent control ordinances. City Attorney David Lohman said landlords would likely sue the city for damages if they couldn’t collect rent while a city ordinance controlling rates was in effect.

Councilor Dennis Slattery said that although progress has been made since 2016 to ease the building process for ARUs, the city must solidify an intended level of affordability, while still allowing developers to see a return on their investment.

“Our problem here in Ashland is building costs,” Slattery said. “Unless you can find a way to establish a different kind of building paradigm, then those costs remain that high, which they are for the foreseeable future. It’s not us not taking action, by the way, on anti-gouging ordinances that really have no teeth to them, it’s the state that has to do that kind of thing.”

Molnar further cautioned that rent gouging ordinances traditionally establish caps based on former rent prices, which doesn’t relate to keeping prices low on new ARU construction.

He reiterated the importance of variety, as the current newly constructed housing market is often dominated by single-family, detached houses — increasingly farther out of reach for many working households in Ashland.

The council will hear public testimony and revisit affordable housing standards at its Nov. 17 business meeting. The business meeting scheduled for Nov. 3 has been canceled.

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497 and follow her on Twitter @AllayanaD.