Jeff Carr, chief executive officer of the nonprofit Albertina Kerr Centers, was appalled when a colleague approached him at an event and said a Kerr employee was homeless and living in a tent with her five children.
"I couldn't fathom that," Carr said, and after a few sleepless nights decided to do something about affordable housing for the working poor.
The result: Albertina Kerr is planning to build 150 affordable housing units on its Gresham campus at Northeast 162nd Avenue between Glisan and Halsey streets.
The housing will be open to all with qualifying incomes, not just Kerr employees.
The incident at the event "really brought home the housing crisis," Carr said.
It was especially upsetting that it was a Kerr employee, Carr said, as they work with people with mental health challenges and developmental disabilities.
"We have employed people caring for society's most vulnerable people and they can't afford housing," he said. "It is both morally wrong and an existential threat to our business."
Some have suggested to Carr that he just pay employees more. He has raised Kerr's starting wage to $15.40 per hour already. But, the nonprofit relies on reimbursement from health insurance and public donations for its income, limiting his options.
"We're committed to raising wages, but employees will continue to lose ground" because rent and home price increases will outstrip pay increases, he said.
Carr, who has been Albertina Kerr's CEO since 2016, has extensive experience with unhoused people and unaffordable rents. He was chief of staff for Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who was mayor from 2005 to 2013.
Following that, the affable Carr was an organizer and chief operating officer of the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles, which were held in 2015. The event raised $100 million, and brought 6,500 athletes from 165 countries to Los Angeles. It was the biggest sporting event in the world that year.
150 new homes
Albertina Kerr's planned four-story, 96,816 square foot building will have 150 units. The homes will range from studios to three bedrooms.
The apartments will be affordable at a variety of incomes, calibrated to the Area Median Income. Thirty of the units will be priced at 30% of the AMI, or an income of about $26,400 for a family of four. Another 102 units will be at 60% of AMI, about $52,740 for a family of four, and 15 units at 80% of AMI, or about $70,320 income for a family of four.
Thirty of these units will be targeted for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
"These units will be sprinkled throughout the community," he said, so residents with disabilities will not be isolated.
"There will be a cool little playground and community gardens," Carr said.
Albertina Kerr plans to set three units aside for families of children that are being treated in Kerr's mental health crisis unit on the Gresham campus.
The architects have a vision for the new residential building.
"What we're looking to do is build community that enriches the residents and is a member of the broader neighborhood," said James Smith, principal with Ankrom Moisan Architects, the firm designing the building.
"We don't want people isolated by their income or disability," he added.
One striking feature of the Albertina Kerr campus is the huge Douglas fir trees.
"We're going to preserve as many of those as we can," Smith said.
One particularly large fir growing in front of the proposed building site at the north end of the Kerr campus will be saved.
Kerr will plant new evergreens around the project "so there will always be a canopy of mature Douglas firs," Smith said.
The historic Wynne Watts School, which opened in 1936 at 930 N.E. 162nd Ave., will be demolished to make way for the new building.
The nonprofit organization hopes to break ground on the project in the fall, providing it can secure sufficient funding.
Albertina Kerr raised $1.05 million in private donations, with a goal of $1.2 million.
The group is also hoping to get some of the money Gresham will receive from the $653 million Metro affordable housing bond approved by voters in November 2018. Metro expects about 3,900 permanently affordable homes will be created throughout the Metro region with the bond.
Gresham should be getting about $26.7 million from the bond over seven years, said Brian Monberg, senior manager of special projects and policy for the city of Gresham.
The city is still working on guidelines for developers to apply for the money and expects applications to be available sometime in late winter or early spring, Monberg said.
The city has been in discussions with Albertina Kerr officials and expects the organization will apply for some of the Metro bond funds. Any grants to nonprofit or private developers must be approved by the Gresham City Council.
Carr said he is "optimistic" that they will get Metro bond funds. Kerr anticipates asking for $80,000 per unit or about $12 million.
"Our intent is to get housing built as soon as possible," Monberg said. "This is a significant investment that Gresham and other public agencies have not had before. It will certainly help meet housing needs for our area."
Affordable housing is a new venture for Albertina Kerr.
"We know there is a need," Carr said.
What is Albertina Kerr?
Albertina Kerr says it "empowers people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, mental health challenges and other social barriers to lead self-determined lives and reach their full potential."
About 700 children, teens and their families get mental health services from the nonprofit organization every year. Kerr offers stabilization services for kids in crisis and clinic and community-based outpatient care.
Kerr operates 34 community-based residential homes in four counties for folks with intellectual and developmental disabilities. They also operate neighborhood group homes for kids ages 7-18.
Founded in 1907, Kerr's mission has transformed with the needs of society. For many years it was a home for "unwed" mothers, but as the need for those services waned, Kerr began serving people with developmental disabilities.
Visit albertinakerr.org to make a donation or support Kerr in other ways.
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