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House vote sends legislation to the Senate to ward off potential legal challenges

PMG FILE PHOTO - The Woodburn Super 8 Motel is shown here in 2020.The conversion of hotels and motels to emergency shelters and low-cost housing would be eased under a bill that is halfway through the Oregon Legislature.

The House voted 41-12 on Wednesday, March 31, to send the bill to the Senate.

House Bill 3261 would exclude the conversion of hotels and motels purchased for emergency shelters or low-cost housing from land use challenges in cities and counties. Lawmakers made federal money available for such purchases last year under Project Turnkey, which is overseen by the Oregon Community Foundation.

Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, said some projects have proceeded, but others have stalled despite community support.

"The need to pursue zoning changes often stands in the way of great projects," Marsh, the bill's sponsor, said. "That is a problem when we are experiencing a crisis in homelessness and low-income housing.

"It will allow us to repurpose hotels and motels that have served tourists and will become facilities that will house the most vulnerable among us. As a building intended to take care of people, it should not matter whose head rests on that pillow."

Marsh represents a district that lost 2,500 homes from the Almeda fire, which swept north from Ashland through Talent and Phoenix. It was one of the Labor Day wildfires that swept Oregon. Many of the displaced residents were low-income families who were left with few affordable alternatives for housing.

The bill applies to buildings within urban growth boundaries, and outside areas zoned for heavy industrial use. They must have access to transportation, and be outside floodplains or other designated hazard areas.

Local governments can still apply other restrictions, such as building codes, occupancy limits and "reasonable" site and design standards.

Housing is defined as "affordable" if qualifying residents earn less than 60% of the area median income.

"Some of these facilities will remain shelters or transitional housing. But in other cases, the longterm use most needed by a community will be low-income housing," Marsh said. "Hotels and motels that may not fit the bill for today's travelers are the perfect place to provide people in crisis with stability and the support they need in order to move toward permanent housing."

House Republican Leader Christine Drazan of Canby spoke against the bill.

As a member of the Legislature's Emergency Board, she voted Oct. 23 for $30 million for Project Turnkey in wildfire-affected areas and $35 million for Project Turnkey in other areas. (The board rejected the latter amount then, but reversed itself and approved it on Nov. 9.)

Drazan acknowledged the pressing need for providing shelter for people who have lost their homes for whatever reason. But she objected to the prospective purchase of the Red Fox Motel in Estacada as a shelter, saying it was better suited longterm for tourism. (Clackamas County commissioners voted 3-2 on Jan. 28 to suspend further consideration of the purchase.)

Drazan also said lawmakers were creating an exception to Oregon's land-use laws, instead of easing restrictions to allow construction of more housing.

"Instead of fixing our land-use system and the things that are broken, we are giving a pass, we are doing a carve-out," she said. "We are creating a back way because it's not working."

Republicans split on the bill, eight voting for it and 12 against it; the other three were excused. All Democrats present voted for it. The House is still short one member.

Rep. Jack Zika, R-Redmond, said the bill would ease the way for the proposed purchase of the Bethlehem Inn in his district.

The bill, slightly more than a page long, was read aloud by a clerk because minority Republicans have declined to waive the constitutional requirement for bills to be read in their entirety prior to a final vote. More than 80 bills await action on the House agenda.

But this bill jumped to the top of the agenda because a substitute version had been proposed by Rep. Lily Morgan, R-Grants Pass, who then decided against advancing it.

Marsh said a private investor has purchased three hotels or motels within Medford for conversion to housing. Though House Bill 3261 would not apply to these projects, she said, "it validates this model."

"At a time when our community has lost 2,500 homes to wildfire, it may be the actions of this private entity that actually save our bacon," Marsh added. "It is doing the one significant, tangible effort to create new housing very quickly in a community that has been devastated."

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