Clackamas County vets 'creative solutions' on housing concerns
Clackamas County is in the process of vetting creative solutions to work with community members in addressing the housing and homelessness crises — two parallel issues that continue to vex policymakers, community organizations and faith-based institutions seeking to make an impact.
The Clackamas Board of County Commissioners heard a brief update on topics related to housing at its Tuesday morning meeting on April 13 at the request of Commissioner Sonya Fischer.
The board looked at requests made by faith-based organizations during a recent town hall on homelesssness, when Pastor Heather Riggs of Oak Grove United Methodist Church made a plea to the county to become more flexible in its regulation of zoning and building code as Clackamas County churches envision the development of transitional housing on their property.
"What I understood from the past is that because we have a declaration for a housing emergency that certain regulations could be dealt with more easily," Fischer said. "So when I keep hearing from members of the faith community that they are having challenges doing the things that they would like to do to help support the homeless situation, I just wanted to bring it up and see what the nexts steps are so we can look at this."
County Chair Tootie Smith said she agrees this is an important issue for the board to take up, and has even seen the extent of some of those barriers for faith-based organizations to use their property for charitable endeavors such as running a clinic in rural Clackamas County to help those struggling with substance abuse.
"I would like to see our government be more responsive and more compassionate to the needs, and especially if we have groups willing to step up to the plate and assist us in offering these services," Smith said. "By all means, I think we should be less punitive, and more compassionate in allowing some of these things to go forward and I'm glad (Commissioner Fischer) brought that up."
Smith said that she's instructed staff within the county's planning and zoning division to look at what zoning and development ordinances are standing in the way for faith-based organizations to bring their visions to fruition in providing some options for neighbors to be supported as they transition out of homeslessness.
According to Dan Johnson, county transportation and development director, Clackamas County is currently keeping its eye on House Bill 2008, currently making its way through the Oregon Legislature to address some of these questions around how faith-based communities use their property for these purposes, as well as certain tax exemptions.
Johnson recalled the "lengthy and painful" discussion that took place in 2019 around the King of Kings Lutheran Church in Oak Grove when the church's effort to create an overnight shelter riled up neighbors. He hopes HB 2008 will clarify some of the more murky details of how these processes work and plans to return to this discussion during a policy session scheduled for April 28.
"That's why we are hoping for some legislation to come out to kind of really mold that process a little more tightly. We did that as a temporary permit for use that's otherwise allowed, which caused a lot of community angst, for lack of a better word, but we will include in our presentation some assumption and some clarity around what that emergency declaration allows the board to do," Johnson said.
County Administrator Gary Schmidt told the board that staff would investigate HB 2008 and related measures further, find out what position the Association of Oregon Counties has taken on the bill and recirculate the county's housing crisis declaration for more details of the flexibility it might provide for the county to address the faith community's concern. The issue will come back before the board in a full policy session in the coming weeks.
Riggs was joined in her call for the county to provide some support for their efforts by organizations like Storyline Community, another faith-based group that has partnered with Leaven Community Land & Housing Coalition — a group of united faith organizations across the tri-county area working on housing issues — to form the Clackamas Land and Housing Cohort.
Riggs is working closely with organizers like Sara Gross Samuelson at Storyline and LaVeta Gilmore-Jones from Leaven Community to push for expanded affordable housing capacity in Clackamas County. Together they've united four churches in Milwaukie and Oak Grove, all working toward the same goal.
"When we're looking at building affordable housing, one of my priorities as a pastor is, what can I build that the community, you know our neighbors, our church members, the local businesses, can feel good about and that will bring vitality to the overall community," Riggs said. "So some of the daydreams that we have had from our own experiences is, what if we were to build supportive youth housing because we have a strong relationship with New Urban High School. Another need that we have seen is seniors living on social security."
According to Sara Gross Samuelson and LaVeta Gilmore-Jones, some of the concessions their cohort is seeking from the county include things like a reduction or waiver of system development charges on development of affordable units and implementation of certain code and zoning changes set by HB 1051 passed by the Oregon Legislature in 2017 that gives freedom to agencies to give faith-based developers that freedom to maneuver.
Samuelson also noted that it would be a huge step in the right direction for the county to treat the housing crisis it declared three years ago the same way it treated declarations around the wildfires, wind and ice storms it saw over the past year.
"If it's an emergency, then let's treat it like an emergency," Samuelson said. "I think that we create flexibility in an emergency, and that just hasn't been created in this housing emergency."
Also on Tuesday:
County commissioners also heard an update Tuesday on Project Turnkey — a statewide housing initiative administered through the Oregon Community Foundation that offers jurisdictions funding to purchase motel properties for use as transitional shelters.
The past two efforts by the Housing Authority of Clackamas County to vet the purchase of motel properties in Jennings Lodge (Econo Lodge) and Estacada (Red Fox Motel) were met with heavy criticism from both communities and eventually abandoned by the board for other potential locations.
According to a report from Housing Authority staff, the county was also looking at the Clackamas Inn and Suites on 82nd Drive and Highway 212, Comfort Suites on Southeast McKinley Avenue near Interstate 205, Milwaukie Inn on McLoughlin Boulevard, Budget Inn on McLoughlin Boulevard, Holiday Inn Express in Gladstone on 82nd Drive, Snooze Inn in Wilsonville, Best Western Sandy Inn, Motel 6 Canby and Best Western Wilsonville.
Despite the county's use of Turnkey funds being mostly dead in the water due to a lack of interest from a majority of the board, Fischer is championing the issue following a cost-savings analysis of how the purchase of the Econo Lodge motel in Jennings Lodge using state dollars. Fischer said Project Turnkey funds for the Econo Lodge — which is currently contracted by the county as a warming shelter during winter months — could potentially save the county money in the long run.
"I wanted to close the loop on this for my colleagues to let you know that this analysis was done. It would be quite a cost savings if we were to purchase the facility, and my concern as far as the market goes is I can see that the private industry because this will be such a demand with the homeless services dollars will buy up these potential hotels and then charge the taxpayer more," Fischer said. "So, if we can get ahead of it with whatever resources we have, it's something we need to put on our list and on the forefront of our thinking."
According to the report by HACC staff, the cost of ownership and operation of the motel by the county would be approximately $1.19 million, annually, whereas under contract the cost is about $1.88 million per year. Those figures do not include the nearly $2 million purchase price of the Econolodge property which would have come from funds made available by Project Turnkey through an allocation to the Oregon Community Foundation which distributes the funds.
Commissioner Paul Savas said he's hesitant to support the purchase after seeing the "ballooning" costs of the development of the county's Webster Road property in Gladstone.
"We bought that property with the understanding that we are able to move in there pretty swiftly with low cost," he said. "And here it is, two years later and we're a year away from it opening and the cost is ballooned significantly."
The funds provided by Project Turnkey expire on July 1, 2021. It's unclear whether the county will continue to pursue the purchase of a motel through the program before the expiration date.
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