PUBLIC PROFILE: Pam Marsh
In a new series, the Rogue Valley Messenger catches up with public officials in the region, and asks for their insights into local issues—and solutions. Pam Marsh is a member of the Ashland City Council and the liaison to the Housing & Human Services Commission as well as the executive director of the Ashland Emergency Food Bank.
RVM: How do you characterize the current state of affordable housing in the Ashland area?
Pam Marsh: As far as I can tell, affordable housing is in crisis right now. Our rental vacancy rate is hovering at close to 1 percent. Most people agree that a healthy rental market has a vacancy at about 5 percent, so ours is in big trouble. The very low number of vacancies presents a tremendous obstacle for anyone—even the most affluent among us—looking for rental housing. When supply is low, rents go up, and housing that most of us might consider “affordable” becomes non-existent in the private market. As a result, much of the affordable housing in our community has some kind of government subsidy. The City of Ashland is always looking for opportunities to partner with one of the region’s affordable housing developers, but the high cost of land makes many projects unfeasible. That doesn’t mean that we stop looking, but rather that we have to be more creative, and more focused, to identify projects.
RVM: A year ago, Ashland City Council stated one of the priority goals in its current strategic plan should be to seek opportunities to enable all citizens to meet basic needs. How is that being done for affordable housing?
PM: Although it doesn’t always seem like we’re making a lot of headway on the issue, the city has, in fact, taken action on a number of fronts. Affordable housing is a bigger issue than we can address alone. But in partnership with residents, local nonprofits and private entities we can leverage small municipal investments to achieve good outcomes.
Three years ago two faith-based organizations, Temple Emek Shalom and the Rogue Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, asked the city to dedicate Pioneer Hall one night a week to provide overnight shelter. The City provides the facility and insurance and the partner organizations supply volunteers and oversight. The program has worked so well that it has been expanded to two nights a week.
We also are currently working with the Housing Authority to create a project that could provide 10-20 units near lower Clay Street. The City would sell the land at our cost; the Housing Authority would build homes for qualifying families.
We also continue to look for ways to encourage creation of affordable housing via the private market. After three years of study, a land use master plan for the Normal Avenue neighborhood (bordered by Clay, East Main, the middle school and the railroad) is nearing completion. If approved, it would provide for the development of what I think could be a great family neighborhood.
RVM: Obviously food-security and affordable housing are connected issues, and you also are the Executive Director for the Ashland Emergency Food Bank. In July, you served a record 669 households, a total of about 1,600 children and adults. Why the uptick?
PM: Actually, our numbers were even higher in August, with nearly 700 households coming in our doors. Clearly, the local economy is failing some of us, especially families. About 25 percent of the individuals who receive assistance from the Food Bank are children under the age of 18. Many of our families are working, but for too few hours or for a wage that can’t cover all their bills. We are a primarily a service-based economy, and the jobs that are critical to our restaurants and accommodations are rarely family-wage positions. The obvious conclusion is that we need to do whatever we can to diversify the economy to provide better opportunities our neighbors—and the next generation.