State chairman targets housing issues

SALEM — Larry Medinger, the newly appointed chairman of the Oregon State Housing Council, wants to start a program that lets young professionals live in communities where they are being priced out of the market.

A good example? The builder's own hometown of Ashland, where soaring land costs have sent housing prices through the skylight.

"There are median housing problems that are huge," he said, adding it's time for the state to take a leadership role in preserving median-income homesites in the state's wealthier communities.

A developer, Medinger chaired his first council meeting on Friday. He was appointed chairman by Gov. Ted Kulongoski on July 1.

The seven-member council sets housing policy, considers program stands and passes on requests for loans and grants. The program is administered by the Oregon Housing and Community Services Department with a current budget of $2.2 billion.

The bulk of the money is disbursed by Congress primarily through Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Health and Human Services (HHS). The 2007 Legislature tossed in $19.5 million — up nearly 80 percent from the previous biennium — plus another $15.8 million in bonding authority backed by the lottery.

In addition to financial and program support, the agency offers tax credits for builders. Also eligible for funding are local housing authorities which then own and manage the projects, and low-income homebuyers.

The agency also administers federal and state anti-poverty, homeless, energy assistance and community service programs.

Medinger says he doesn't want to provide funding for median-income housing but instead establish a program that will give cities back-up in developing their own plans.

"We have low-income housing in Ashland," he said, but the almost completely unaddressed problem is the lack of affordable homes for people who are not necessarily on the dole — young professionals and service workers such as teachers or hospital staff.

"In other words, regular working families are the ones that are having problems finding housing," he said. "We don't really address that."

Finding solutions won't require subsidies, said Medinger, but leadership from the state to assist cities in developing their own programs.

"We're not talking about people who need subsidies, but people who need some type of fix," he said.

Medinger said city councils give lip service to the problem year after year, yet absolutely nothing gets done. Citing Ashland's high real estate costs, Medinger said "we've exported 5,000, 7,000, 8,000 of our service workers outside the city limits."

"The real problem is not housing costs, it's land costs," said Medinger. But whenever your talk about this with the City Council or the Planning Commission or anybody else, their eyes fog over, he said.

"Several councilors have made the statement that 'our affordable housing is Talent,' " he said.

He plans to push for his ideas during his term leading the state housing council.

The former chairman of the Ashland Housing Commission, Medinger owns and operates Medinger Construction Co. in Ashland. He is a 1968 graduate of Portland State University and started his company in 1972.

His firm does a strong remodeling business as well as new development.

Don Jepsen is a freelance writer living in Salem.

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