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Ashland mayor highlights housing need in State of the City address

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneAshland City Hall.

Ashland Mayor Julie Akins emphasized a need for the city to develop family, workforce and affordable housing suited to average income and economic trends in a State of the City address during the City Council meeting Tuesday.

Akins said a recent conversation with a mother of two — who said she had “given up” because she couldn’t find a way to offer her children an Ashland upbringing due to cost-prohibitive housing — underscored how the city has let its residents down.

She said the city needs to set policy to make “housing people with dignity possible,” and change policies that make the construction of livable, sustainable and affordable housing “onerous.”

Between 2000 and 2019, the city’s population grew by about 7%, according to the 2021-2041 Housing Capacity Analysis prepared by EcoNorthwest and adopted by the council in August 2021. The population is slated to continue growing at an average annual rate of 0.37%.

“Housing affordability is a challenge across Jackson County, with housing costs in Ashland considerably above regional averages,” according to the analysis. “In 2020, the median home sales price in Ashland was $434,000, more than $130,000 above the median sales prices for Medford, Central Point and other cities in the region. The only other city with sales prices comparable to Ashland was Jacksonville.”

Roughly half (46%) of Ashland’s households are considered “cost burdened” (nearly two-thirds of them renters) compared to an average 39% nationwide. According to a December 2020 review of available rental properties through CPM Real Estate Services cited in the analysis, the typical rent for a two-bedroom unit ranged from $1,145 to $1,560, and $1,595 to $1,995 for three bedrooms.

“Demographic and economic trends will drive demand for affordable and diverse housing in Ashland,” according to the analysis. “Key demographic and economic trends affecting Ashland’s future housing needs are the aging of the baby boomers, the aging of the millennials and Generation Z, and the continued growth in Hispanic and Latino population.”

In Ashland, median household income falls around $50,000, and about one-quarter of households earn less than $25,000 per year — higher than the statewide average of 20%.

The loss of 2,500 dwellings to the Almeda fire in September 2020 increased regional need for affordable housing and overall market pressure, according to the analysis.

In line with the path toward affordable housing, Akins said, in the past year a conceptual proposal was approved for a housing development above the Hargadine Street parking structure, new housing construction by ColumbiaCare for residents below the poverty line began on Ashland Street, and the Jackson County Housing Authority initiated the second phase of family housing off Clay Street.

“We have annexed areas for building more homes too, but we’re behind,” Akins said.

Among missed opportunities, she said, a housing complex project designed to sell units for less than $200,000 each went to Medford. A textile manufacturer considering relocating to Ashland recently passed out of concern they couldn’t find light manufacturing space or staff housing, she said.

Job growth sits at -2.6%, and more than one-quarter of the city’s population is 65 or older, Akins said, underlining a need for income diversification, appropriate budget management and economic drivers.

“We need housing and we need jobs, in that order,” she said.

In the address, the mayor also cited a need to prepare for megafires, and praised city staff for creating a mapping system, the Ashland Fire & Rescue wildfire division for helping homeowners create fire-adapted living environments, and partners for controlled thinning and burning in the interest of community protection and forest health.

In December, the wildfire division secured a $3 million mitigation grant through the Federal Emergency Management Agency for reduction of flammable vegetation around 1,100 homes and replacement of wood shake roofing with fire-resistant materials.

In March 2021, the Ashland Municipal Electric Utility continued a trend of national recognition for excellence and reliability, she said, ranking in the top 25% of utilities in the System Average Interruption Duration Index. The utility previously received recognition in 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019.

Emergency services kept busy over the past year, Akins said, with Ashland police handling 29,512 calls for service, 2,713 cases, and partnership with Rogue Retreat leading to the successful launch of the city’s urban campground.

“Ashland police officers saved at least six lives in 2021 through CPR or Narcan deployment,” Akins said.

Ashland Fire & Rescue responded to 4,785 calls for service and transported 2,554 patients, while navigating shifting service models during the pandemic, staff vacancies and a severe injury, she said.

The city’s portfolio of solutions to address the climate crisis includes solar power, clean water storage, use of graywater for farms and lawns, soil regeneration, limiting fossil fuel consumption, protecting pollinator species and recognition of consumer impact, Akins said.

“I look forward to an electric vehicle fleet when the time is right, and working with parks toward urban food gardens, as have been created in cities across our country,” she said.

A mural at Ashland High School honoring murder victim Aidan Ellison and “agents of change” in the community serves as a reminder of work still to be done, she said.

“There is an increasingly large chasm between rich and poor, and the stain we’ve yet to wash away: The ugliness of racial violence and exclusion still exists, yes, even here in Ashland,” she said. “We cannot begin to heal wounds we deny.”

Akins said the council’s working resolution and establishment of the Social Equity and Racial Justice Commission were not “performative measures,” but rather “true evidence” of a city endeavoring to achieve equity and anti-racism.

Reach reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497.