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16-unit apartment complex in St. Helens will provide housing for homeless and underserved population

DOUG CIRCOSTA, HOME FIRST DEVELOPMENT PARTNERS - Architectural renderings show the design plan for a new 16-unit housing complex in St. Helens that will provide affordable housing next to the offices of Community Action Team.A forthcoming 16-unit housing development in St. Helens will be the latest to offer affordable housing in Columbia County.

Community Action Team held a groundbreaking ceremony Thursday, Oct. 11, to celebrate the acquisition of property right next to CAT's headquarters.

The new apartments will provide sorely needed housing for homeless, low-income and other vulnerable segments of the county's population.

"This will be affordable housing," says Nina Reed, president of the nonprofit Self Help Inc., which partnered with CAT to make the housing project possible. "That means it could be for homeless, it could be for veterans, or mental health clients referred from [Columbia Community Mental Health.]"

The lot sits next to CAT's headquarters on 17th Street in St. Helens, providing a laundromat, grocery store, library, food bank, and the gamut of services from CAT, all within walking distance.

While CAT routinely provides housing and utility assistance, along with referrals for other services, the new homes mark the first housing complex CAT has been involved with.

Reed says the project was made possible with a roughly $600,000 Local Innovation Fast Track, or LIFT, housing grant, along with a $675,000 loan from Wauna Federal Credit Union and another $350,000 for mental health housing through Oregon's Housing and Community Services Department. LIFT grants help typically underserved communities provide housing.

"We were going to lose this whole thing until we got the $350,000, Reed says, noting a vital push from Sen. Betsy Johnson and Margaret Salazar, director of Housing and Community Services.

"This is a major breakthrough for our rural areas," Reed notes.

PHOTO COURTESY OF SELF HELP INC. - Board members with Community Action Team and Self Help Inc. celebrate a new affordable housing complex slated to be built in St. Helens on Oct. 11 during a groundbreaking ceremony.Data show Columbia County, like its metropolitan neighbors, has a shortage of homes at a price point its residents can afford.

"We divided the population into four income categories," says Dan Brown, executive director of CAT, citing a housing study. "Based on a family not being rent burdened, meaning they're not paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent ... there's only about 1,200 units for those that are most vulnerable. The study showed an immediate need of another 1,900 units."

Brown says families burdened by high housing costs lack funds to pay for other necessities.

"What that means for those 1,900 families is that instead of paying for things like going to the doctor or eating healthy, they're dumping that money into housing they can't afford," Brown says.

CAT and Self Help are still awaiting permits from the city of St. Helens for the building project, but the first signs of stakes in the ground, encompassed by fencing around the project site, were reason enough to celebrate.

The 400-square-foot units will be built by Rich Bailey Construction out of Warren. Apartments are slated to begin construction as soon as permitting is complete, with a targeted completion date of June. Reed says the goal is to have units rented by August of next year.

"Our real plan is to stabilize individuals in small family units," Brown notes.

The homes will be owned by Self Help and will be rented out with lease agreements.

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