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County commissioners opt not to move forward with Red Fox project, programs from Metro may free up funds for other work

COURTESY PHOTO - Clackamas County was previously considering the Red Fox Motel as the site for Project Turnkey but opted to not move forward with the project.

As director of the Estacada Area Food Bank, Debra Bufton works with community members at a variety of housing levels —including those who are unhoused or housing insecure.

A report of the housing status for the customers of the food bank at 272 Broadway St. found that during the year 2020, 32 customers were camping, 28 were unhoused and 20 lived in their vehicles. Additionally, three customers lived in motels, one lived in an emergency shelter, two lived in a halfway house, two lived in residential treatment facilities or supervised housing, 18 lived in public housing, 86 lived with family and friends, 139 lived in mobile homes, 120 owned a home, and 266 lived in private rentals.

Bufton said "there is a huge need (for affordable housing) in our community."

"The challenge here is that it's not as visible. People live on other people's property or in the forest. There's a significant number of people without stable housing, or they're housing vulnerable. They're one divorce or one lost paycheck away from losing their housing," she said, adding that she knows two families who lost their homes in last fall's wildfires but have been unable to rent locally.

Affordable housing in Estacada has been a recent discussion at the county level. In late January, the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners opted not to move forward with Project Turnkey at the Red Fox Motel, which would have offered shelter for homeless individuals before transitioning to workforce housing.

During a meeting Thursday, Jan. 28, the commission voted 3-2 to not move forward with the due-diligence phase at the Red Fox. The Estacada motel at 600 S.W. Beech Road was under consideration for the project after commissioners opted not to move forward with the project at the Econo Lodge Motel in Jennings Lodge.

"I'm hopeful that we can continue to have the conversations, because there's a need in the rural areas, and the urban areas are getting most of the dollars," Clackamas County Commissioner Martha Schrader said after the vote in the Jan. 28 meeting.

During a Feb. 4 meeting of Estacada Connects — a group of community organizations in Estacada focused on networking and resource sharing — Clackamas County Housing Policy Coordinator Vahid Brown said that new programs from the Metro Regional Government may free up other dollars to be used for housing projects in rural communities like Estacada.

Project Turnkey faces criticism

Through the Project Turnkey program, the Oregon Legislature has earmarked $30 million for the Oregon Community Foundation to administer funds for the acquisition of motel/hotel properties in eight counties and tribal communities affected by the 2020 wildfires, and another $35 million for the rest of the state.

If the project had moved forward at the Red Fox, housing priority would have gone to residents impacted by the wildfires last year. The Riverside Fire, which came within half a mile of Estacada city limits last fall, destroyed 57 homes and damaged an additional 10. Next priority would have been given to Clackamas County residents who have lost housing because of the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Eventually, the property could have been used to develop workforce housing, which is affordable to households that earn 60% of the area median income.

During the Jan. 28 meeting, county staff noted that they had received 38 emails and voicemails opposing the project, two that were neutral and two in support of moving forward with the due diligence phase of Project Turnkey at the Red Fox.

Multiple Estacada community members spoke at the Jan. 28 meeting to express concern about the fact that they had not previously been aware of the project.

Kimberly Dinwiddie, public information officer for Clackamas County, spoke to the value of community engagement saying, "we want to be sure we're doing projects for a community, and not to a community."

"Just because a conversation happens with the board doesn't mean a decision has been made," she said. "Conversations with the board may happen before public engagement begins, but that doesn't mean it's been decided because it's been brought before the board."

The number of grocery stores in Estacada, along with the level of police and fire services, were several of the infrastructure concerns presented.

Estacada Economic Development Manager Matt Lorenzen said community members "have the right to voice those opinions."

"Anything in the city that adds to the inventory of affordable housing units helps meet the demand out there, and we know there is a demand out there," he said. "But there were legitimate questions about whether or not this was the right opportunity, the right place and the right time."

Lorenzen said the project was presented to Estacada city staff as temporary shelter for families who were impacted by last fall's wildfires. It would eventually transition into low income and workforce housing. Support staff would be on site during both phases.

"When people hear 'homeless shelter,' they might think of an open gym with a bunch of mats for sleeping," he said. "That's not what was presented."

Lorenzen added that he's critical of the idea expressed by Clackamas County Chair Tootie Smith "that county staff somehow acted inappropriately or tried to do something in secret without the community knowing."

During the Jan. 28 meeting, Smith said she was "ashamed" for Clackamas County staff.

"I am embarrassed, as your elected official, that we have gotten to this point where we have surprised residents with a project they don't want," she said.

"I think that assessment is unfair and inaccurate," Lorenzen said. "The conversation was not a discussion of 'should we buy the property?' It was 'should we study the property and engage with this topic?' I think the perception was that this was a done deal. I'm not objecting to people's concerns, but the assessment that this was done in secret feels really inaccurate."

Bringing housing diversity to Estacada

During a meeting Monday, Feb. 8, Estacada City Councilors Katy Dunsmuir and Jerry Tenbush spoke to the need for diverse housing in the city and said they were disappointed that Project Turnkey had not moved forward at the Red Fox.

"For me personally, the most exciting part about the potential of that project was not the transitional shelter that was originally that was the initial proposed purpose, but it was actually the (workforce) housing that could have followed it," said Dunsmuir.

She added that there are many reasons why someone might lose their housing.

"When you think in your mind, 'homeless shelter, they must be busing in people from Portland,' that is not the case," she said. "We're talking about your neighbor who experienced a kitchen fire, and that kitchen fire had made their home now uninhabitable. And when they're faced with that scenario, they can't live in Estacada anymore. There's no other options, and I think that's sad that's the reality of the situation."

"I think that this was an opportunity for the Estacada community to have somewhere for our community members to go to get resources," Tenbush added.

Dunsmuir noted that the conversation about bringing affordable housing to Estacada is not a new one. In 2019, she and several city staff members spoke with members of the Clackamas County Housing Authority to explore options for the community, during which the Red Fox was mentioned as a possibility.

"The really unfortunate reality of that meeting was that there was no funding. They would love to see what they can do to bring housing diversity into our community to meet a growing need," she said. "Back in 2019, they told us, 'We're looking at properties available in your city and unfortunately there's just too many financial constraints that we have.'"

A 2019 Housing Needs Analysis for the city of Estacada called for additional housing diversity, noting that from 2013-2017, 78% of Estacada's housing was single-family detached. Between February 2015 and February 2019, the city's median average housing sale price rose from $234,900 to $299,900, a 28% increase.

Additionally, around 55% of Estacada's renters and 25% of Estacada's homeowners are cost burdened, meaning they spent 30% or more of their income on housing. The analysis stated that more affordable housing for both homeowners and renters is needed.

Dunsmuir encouraged anyone interested in participating in the conversation about affordable housing to reach out to her.

"This conversation has been happening for a very long time in a lot of different venues and a lot of different outlets," she said. "I'm happy to help connect you to that conversation if you feel it's a conversation you're missing out on and want to participate in. I'm happy to connect you with any educational resources that are out there to help you better understand the impact that the lack of housing diversity is having on our community right now, as well as the impact that it's going to have in the future."

Moving forward

On Feb. 4, Brown told attendees of an Estacada Connects meeting that Metro's Affordable Housing Services bond and the Supportive Housing Services measure may have an impact on bringing diverse housing to Estacada and other rural areas of the county. Though Estacada is outside of Metro's boundaries, the new programs may allow the county to free up funds to use in rural areas.

"We have these new resources dedicated to a portion of the county. We previously had federal, state, and local resources dedicated to the entirety of the county," he said. "And so now, we're working through planning efforts to try to figure out how to best redirect federal, state and local resources specifically to the rural areas of the county that are not covered by that supportive housing services measure," he said.

He noted that the county is working with United Oregon and the Coalition of Communities of Color for outreach and engagement with community members in rural areas.

"I would like to continue to engage with Estacada and help the county understand the affordable housing and homeless services needs in the community, so we can then take that information back into this planning as we move forward to redirect resources for homeless services to the rural areas," he said.

Along with the county's efforts, the Estacada City Council formed a committee on housing affordability and diversity in September. During their Feb. 8 meeting, the council appointed nine members to the group, which will be focused on developing a strategy to encourage the construction of more multifamily housing options in the city.

Bufton noted that there's often "a pejorative label" placed on individuals who lose their housing and may benefit from affordable units or transitional shelters.

"They are all people in the world trying to do their best," she said.

She added that customers at the food bank have a variety of stories. One individual had left a domestic violence situation. Another person, who also volunteers at the food bank, had previously been camping in the nearby forest prior to moving to the Red Fox.

"I live here and work with people every day," Bufton said. "We have the numbers in our community that need supportive, stable housing. We can fill it with people who want to be citizens of our community."

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