Rent hikes, homelessness and hunger in a small Western city

A writer in Ashland, Oregon, sees the problems that follow an influx of wealth.

 

Michael Baughman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a writer in Oregon.


Think of gentrification as a localized version of climate change: uprooting species and cultures, punishing the poor and rewarding the rich. —Rebecca Solnit, in The Guardian.

Income disparity — a euphemism used to describe a society in which rich people see their wealth grow while the rest of us languish economically — displays itself in many ways. Think of air travel, where first-class passengers are afforded ever more luxury, while travelers in economy are increasingly treated like a herd of cattle trucked from one feedlot to another.

The ongoing gentrification of American cities clearly demonstrates the national tendency toward satisfying the rich above all others. But it wasn’t always this way. After my Army discharge in 1962, I went to San Francisco to attend college with little more than an ancient Pontiac, $80 in cash, a wife I’d married while I was stationed in Germany, and our 10-day-old son.

Protestors march against gentrification and rising rents in San Francisco in 2013.
 

I found a job that paid $375 per month at a wholesale meat market in the Mission District. For $125 per month, we rented a comfortable two-bedroom apartment near Golden Gate Park. Tuition at San Francisco State was $48 per semester, and we made it through two years with money enough to enjoy ourselves along the way.

But San Francisco is a beautiful city currently favored by well-heeled Silicon Valley transplants, and the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment today is $4,431. The Sierra Club, founded by John Muir in 1892, was finally forced out of town in 2015, due to exorbitant rent.

Probably because there aren’t as many people involved — or as many obvious victims — the gentrification of small Western towns has yet to receive much attention, but it seems to occur in any town where there’s natural beauty and lots of nearby public land to play in.

In 1966, when my family and I arrived in Ashland, Oregon, it was a town of 10,000 with a summer outdoor Shakespeare festival, a college, a few lumber mills, andmany boarded-up storefrontsWe bought a three-bedroom house near the college campus for what would barely cover three months’ rent for a two-bedroom San Francisco apartment today. 

The Allen Elizabethan Theatre in Ashland, Oregon.
Half a century later, things are very different. A pivotal change occurred in 1970, when the Angus Bowmer indoor theater opened, allowing the Shakespeare festival to extend its season from spring through fall. Two more indoor theaters followed, and in 2015, when the Sierra Club left San Francisco, Ashland’s 20 millionth theater patron visited town.

Dozens of excellent restaurants have opened through the years, and there’s no McDonalds, which can be taken as a blessing, unless you’re a low-wage worker in need of a job, or the president of the United States. Award-winning brewpubs, wineries and coffeehouses followed the restaurants. When Ashland began to appear on lists of the best small towns in America, and the best places to retire, the rich began to arrive in numbers.

Many of the newcomers build what seem to me to be absurdly huge houses, a high percentage of them occupied by older retired couples. My wife Hilde and I visited one such couple in an 8,000 square-foot, three-story dwelling, where the husband proudly explained that he and his wife commonly communicated through an intercom system and sometimes went days without seeing one another.

The median sale price for houses in Ashland today is $432,500, and the median monthly rent for a house is $1,875. Not surprisingly, few young people can afford to live here. The clearest evidence of this is that even though Ashland’s population has doubled since Hilde and I arrived, the number of elementary schools has dropped from five to three.

But the lives of the residents at the bottom of the economy reveal what’s happening more powerfully than numbers can. Hilde volunteers at the local food bank, and whenever she’s on duty near the end of the month, she serves dozens of local families. They manage to pay their rent, but by month’s end, they can’t afford food. 

This past winter, on a bitterly cold morning, when I was jogging near the Elizabethan theater, I walked into a men’s room. A teenage boy just inside the door was wrapping an old man in a wheelchair with blankets. 

“Is something wrong?” I asked.

“I’m trying to warm up my grandpa,” the boy answered.

He had pushed his grandpa as close as he could get him to the warm air issuing from a hand dryer, and explained that they had been evicted from an apartment in town after their landlord had doubled the rent. They had spent the night in the park.

This, too, is part of gentrification. Is something wrong somewhere?

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