The cost to live in Medford and Southern Oregon continues to rise. Over the last few years, Medford saw huge increases in housing costs, energy costs, and food costs, which has made it harder and harder to afford to live in our area. Not only are these increases driving out long-time residents to our valley, but they're also preventing our next generation from ever establishing a foothold here. Instead of raising families in the communities they grew up in, around parents and grandparents to support them, our next generation is forced to look elsewhere for housing and jobs. To address these increases, we must understand the many factors that go into them. Livability and affordability are not easy problems, and don't have easy solutions.
First, and probably most important livability issue, is the cost of housing. When housing supply is available and plentiful, it becomes affordable for all. Instead, when housing supply is limited, market forces drive prices up, and housing can go out of reach for many.
During the COVID-19 years, record low mortgage interest rates, wide-spread work-from-home availability, and a general societal flight from the cities saw huge increase in demand for housing in our region. And then, in 2020, the Almeda fire destroyed approximately 2300 homes between Ashland, Talent, Phoenix and Medford. Over 2 years later, many of those homes still have not been rebuilt. This one-two punch of increased demand and reduced supply led to some of the largest year-over-year increases in house prices and rents in our area. As a city, Medford can play a large role in helping expand housing supply, and therefore helping reduce these costs.
A common tool in the government tool box is capital-A "Affordable" housing. This is when government subsidizes both the construction and the monthly rents of a housing unit. In Oregon, state laws around Affordable housing add huge costs to these projects, and rules around union participation can sometimes force developers to bring construction crews from Portland, Sacramento, Seattle, or Los Angeles, instead of putting those wages back into the local community. And in Oregon, affordable housing is not allowed in mixed-use developments. In other words, Oregon does not allow first-floor commercial space, or both subsidized and market-rate housing in the same building. If it's Affordable, then it's only Affordable. These factors conspire to make Affordable housing hard to build and an inefficient use of scarce building resources.
As such, Medford must support lowercase-a affordable housing. By helping expand the supply of these starter homes, we can reduce the costs of housing, and make Medford more affordable to those in our community. We have at our disposal a number of resources. We can create special taxing zones, loan/grant programs, or investment districts that lower the barriers to residential construction, and encourage new houses be built.
For example, one program that is currently operating in the city is Medford's Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) program. An ADU is a small secondary dwelling, such as a "in-law cottage" or a converted garage. Generally, ADUs are under 500 sqft and are studio or 1-bedroom units; ideal for young couples looking to get out on their own. This program is designed to help build more ADUs by reducing or eliminating system development charges. These units are an ideal way to gently increase density, because they preserve the character of a neighborhood, versus tearing down homes to build multiplexes. We must expand this program, and other similar programs through the Housing Opportunity Fund.
Of course, the Housing Opportunity Fund only has so many dollars, so we must make sure we are spending them wisely. Some programs create more units than others, so we must make sure the right programs are prioritized to maximize the housing units per dollar spent. We also need to make sure that the Housing Opportunity Fund has access to other grant-program dollars (such as Community Development Block Grant funds) to maximize the opportunity to build more housing units.
Unfortunately, even when incentives, funding, and opportunity line up, builders and developers are still taking too long to get projects off the ground. This means that it takes years, instead of months, to respond to disasters like the Almeda Fire. A big driver of this delay is the permitting and approval process. Local, state, and federal rules create a bureaucratic maze that can slow down even the best-prepared projects. And too often, overworked city employees must scramble to interpret all these rules, make judgements on these projects, and provide a decision. This means that our Planning and Building Departments give out many more "no's" than "yes's".
Instead, I believe we must change the culture around this process. Instead of looking for "no", we need to look for "yes". How can we help builders and developers get to approval, instead of finding reasons to reject? This isn't to say that we should just approval all permits that come our way, or allow illegal permits to pass through. It's that we should act in the spirit of service, and provide help and guidance, so that any project only needs to make one trip through the city process.
Speaking of builders and developers, in order to streamline the housing development pipeline overall, it's important that the city maintain regular communication and coordination with these key players. Major land use decisions, like expanding the city's Urban Growth Boundary, typically take decades to get passed, and these decisions have a profound impact on what we can or cannot build. In other words, the areas that we are developing today are areas that were first identified some 10-20 years ago. By directly coordinating with our local builders and developers, we can push for better land use changes that maximize our ability to build much needed new homes.
Of course, livability isn't just the cost of housing. Another major driver of livability is the cost of energy, including gasoline and diesel. From the fuel racks in Eugene, it costs more than 10¢/gallon to transport the fuel down to Medford. So if we could get energy infrastructure built directly in our community, that would not only create jobs and make Medford a regional energy distributor, but it would also reduce our energy prices and help improve livability.
Livability will be one of my top priorities as a City Councilor, and I will champion the following solutions:
- Expand the ADU SDC Program, and other similar programs.
- Ensure that the Housing Opportunity Fund prioritizes effective programs and has access to other grant-program dollars.
- Change the culture of our city bureaucracies to look for "yes" instead of "no".
- Communicate and coordinate with our local building and development community on ongoing and future land-use changes.
- Support new energy infrastructure to make Medford a regional energy distributor.