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City empowers a committee to tackle Florence’s lack of affordable housing

Posted: Tuesday, Apr 17th, 2007

Finding an affordable place to live in Florence is no easy feat. Most people will agree with that, but defining “affordable” seems to be a stickler that could slow any positive, near-future solutions.

The question of “what is affordable housing” was raised again at this week’s city council meeting when a new ordinance to form a housing advisory committee was proposed by the office of the city manager.

The proposal was drafted in response to the year-long efforts of a group of business people and representatives of a variety of government and charitable agencies who have been hashing out the woes of finding and keeping employees in a city that offers little in the way of reasonably priced homes or apartments.

Jim Clark, president and CEO of Oregon Pacific Bank, presented the proposal, which he backed up with a housing needs study the informal group commissioned in 2006. The study, which originally was presented to city council last November, details the types of housing that exist in Florence and the types that are most called for. At that time, the study stated that at least 256 units were needed for local retail and service workers.

Clark said, “We’ve been hearing an ad campaign (on the radio) to “buy locally. That should include housing.”

City Councilman Paul Holman asked, “Are you going to be trying to put a dollar figure on ‘affordable?’”

The council formally acknowledged the housing problem when it unanimously approved the formation of a new housing advisory committee. The city is now seeking applicants for seats on the committee. Several members of the original discussion group are already candidates.

According to the ordinance, No. 9, Series 2007, the new arm of the council will be charged with developing a strategy, with a timeline, that addresses the overall needs of the community as well as defines “affordable housing,” preferably without actually using the word “affordable.”

The committee would again compile information about the city’s current supply of housing and its price ranges. Finally, it would identify and tap into sources for funding and support from other agencies. These responsibilities mean taking into consideration current land use policies and zoning regulations.

Priced Out of the American Dream

The federal government defines affordable housing as housing for which a homeowner or tenant pays 30 percent or less of his or her income, regardless of the housing being a single-family or multiple-family unit.

According to one dictionary, “affordable” is defined simply as “within one’s means.”

That leaves a lot of people out in the cold in Florence since “one’s means” here is not keeping pace with the state or much of the rest of the country. The median household income in Florence is around $30,000 a year, but the average income has been pegged, but not quantified, around $24,000.

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 18 percent of Florence residents were earning less than $25,000 annually, a salary that precludes many from eligibility for subsidized housing.

Outside the “average” are the 14.4 percent of Florence residents living in poverty. In 1999, poverty level translated, as an example, to a family of three living on $13,410 a year. A number of federal and state programs are available to subsidize housing for people earning such salaries, though actual units are scarce in Florence, and federal funding for housing development is dropping substantially with the current administration. At least 100 local families were on waiting lists for affordable family complexes at the end of last year.

The relevance of these numbers may be out the window since they date to the last census and the demographics of the city, with the notable exclusion of salaries, have changed dramatically in recent years. But real estate prices, the number of available units, and basic math dictate the scope of the problem.

Clark’s study group has been considering the straits of workers earning $13 to $18 per hour.

“A $100,000 mortgage requires $17 an hour,” he said.

Clark added, “The expectation for the committee is (to pursue housing) for inside the city. If we can create some excitement within the building industry, maybe we can do something outside the city limits.”

“If it benefits the city,” said City Manager Bob Willoughby, “then it is a good thing to do.”

According to the housing needs study, average home prices in the greater Florence area have increased steadily since 2000, to $274,258 in the first six months of 2006, which would require an annual income of about $55,000.

Last year’s study says apartment rents range from $400 to $950, depending on size and age. Two apartment complexes, constructed originally as condominiums, have been built in Florence since 1981. House rentals range from $645 to $1,200, which can translate to almost half the net income of the average worker. Many rentals have strict requirements and long waiting lists.

Perusing the classifieds and other real estate advertisements generally defy those prices, and new developments far out-price average salaries.

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