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Housing crunch gets some help

Senate Bill 8 would make it easier for developers to build affordable housing on industrial or commercial land
Senate Bill 8 would make it easier for developers to build affordable housing on industrial or commercial land

A new Oregon law designed to spur development of affordable housing adds another land-use tool to aid this area’s effort to recover from the fires of 2020.

Senate Bill 8 would make it easier for developers to build affordable housing on industrial- or commercial-zoned land by requiring fewer bureaucratic hoops.

In addition, the federal government has provided $422 million toward Oregon’s disaster relief efforts, and the rules regarding how those funds will be divvied up should be worked out in 2022.

The money will be given to hard-hit areas of the state including Jackson County to help them rebuild.

“I’m cautiously optimistic we will see a number of housing units in the next several years, and many will be affordable housing,” said Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland.

She said other efforts are in the works that could help regain some of the footing lost in the Almeda and Obenchain fires, which wiped out some 2,500 housing units.

The Jackson County Housing Authority, which develops affordable housing in the area, is working on a 140-unit modular home park between Phoenix and Medford in the burn scar area, Marsh said.

Another proposal is to create farmworker housing near Jackson School in Medford.

A proposal that is still in its infancy proposes create up to 140 rental units in Medford.

The housing authority has also filed a proposal with the city of Medford for a 98-unit complex on Orchard Home Drive, aided by an infusion of state dollars.

Marsh said SB8 is just one of many tools needed to deal with the housing crisis.

“It all starts with money,” she said.

That’s why she hopes the federal disaster money will help create additional incentives to build housing in this valley and across the state. The money, coupled with SB8, should give cities more flexibility to attract affordable housing

Matt Brinkley, Medford’s planning director, said, “The interesting thing is Medford is way ahead of SB8.”

The city has allowed development on commercial-zoned properties for years, he said, citing the Charles Point apartment and townhome complex in south Medford as one example.

He criticized SB8 because it allows development of an affordable housing project on commercial land without consideration of the impacts on infrastructure, such as sewers, water or roads.

The way SB8 is written doesn’t provide a way for the city to study the impacts on public infrastructure. Typically a developer would have to make the infrastructure improvements for a project to proceed. He said it also begs the question: who will pay for the upgrades?

Another issue facing the construction of affordable housing is the cost, which is often higher because of state and federal rules attached to their grants.

Another issue with SB8 is putting housing developments on industrially zoned lands.

Typically the lands are surrounded by other industrial operations such as wood-processing plants. These are often incompatible with high-density residential projects, Brinkley said.

While affordable housing is welcome in Medford, he said other projects are needed to provide housing for middle-income residents, such as a proposed 400-unit apartment complex that could be built next to the Northgate Marketplace in north Medford.

Brinkley said many of his concerns about zoning could be offset if additional federal dollars come to Medford as part of the disaster relief package.

He said Marsh has indicated that SB8 and the disaster relief grants are both being eyed together to help communities hard-hit by the fires.

“That would be fantastic,” Brinkley said.

Reach freelance writer Damian Mann at dmannnews@gmail.com.