Housing Authority threatens city with lawsuit

The Jackson County Housing Authority has threatened the city of Medford with a federal lawsuit charging it discriminated against low-income families by denying an affordable housing complex.

"We feel this is our last resort," said Jason Elzy, the housing authority's director of development.

The City Council's denial of an affordable housing complex on Spring Street in east Medford violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution, stated Stephen English, attorney with the Portland firm of Perkins Coie LLP, in a letter sent to the city Wednesday.

The housing authority has invested $2 million for the 6-acre property, as well as design and engineering work on the 100-unit Cherry Creek apartment complex. The proposed 16-building complex, comprising 94,550 square feet and 150 parking spaces, would be at the corner of Spring Street and North Berkeley Way, adjacent to Donahue-Frohnmayer Park.

Reacting to neighbors' complaints, the City Council on Sept. 15, 2011, shot down the proposed project on the grounds it was incompatible with the neighborhood. The property is zoned for apartments, though neighbors dispute the zoning because they say high-density residential development would increase traffic on Spring Street and surrounding roads.

Elzy said his agency provides 1,100 units throughout the Rogue Valley, but the east Medford area doesn't have sufficient affordable housing.

Elzy said the Housing Authority has offered to meet recently with city officials on two separate occasions and local residents on two separate occasions, but has been rebuffed.

Ken Williams, chairman of the Housing Authority's board of directors, said the agency's projects are designed to fit into a community.

He cited a recent state award for a 60-unit complex built recently on Clay Street in Ashland.

"The possibility this project would be a detriment is very low," Williams said. "In fact, it will probably be an asset."

Scott Foster, executive director of the Housing Authority, said the complex wouldn't negatively affect property values in the neighborhood.

"We're the ones whose property values have been damaged," he said.

The Housing Authority charges the city acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner in denying the apartments, even though the property is zoned for 20 units an acre.

The council ignored recommendations from its planning staff, the Site Plan and Architectural Commission and the Planning Commission, the letter charged.

"The City Council's decisions wrongly denied to 100 families in need in this community a safe, warm place to live in order to pacify the property's neighbors," the letter stated.

More upscale developments in the city have received preferential treatment, the letter charges.

English, the Housing Authority's attorney, said in the letter sent Wednesday that legal action would be taken if the city does not reverse its stance.

The letter cites the city's own study that showed affordable housing had decreased from 2000 to 2007.

The Housing Authority also filed an appeal with the state Land Use Board of Appeals after the Medford City Council denied the project on Sept. 22. LUBA will hold oral arguments on the appeal on March 29.

Councilman Al Densmore said he couldn't comment on any pending legal matters, deferring to the city's attorney, John Huttl.

Huttl couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon.

Jerry Pringle, one of the neighbors who has opposed the Cherry Creek project, denounced the Housing Authority for threatening to file the suit.

"To have an outfit like that try to cram something down the taxpayers' throat really exasperates me," he said. He said neighbors have spent about $30,000 so far opposing the project.

He predicted property values would plummet if the project gets built.

Pringle's wife, Harriet, said the neighborhood opposition has nothing to do with low-income housing.

She said there is affordable senior housing nearby as well as in the Julia Ann Apartments on Spring Street.

"When they call us the 'NIMBY' — that we don't want them, it is not really true," she said. "The street is not prepared for it."

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or email dmann@mailtribune.com.

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