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Project would have given first priority to those displaced by wildires, eventually become workforce housing

COURTESY PHOTO - Clackamas County Commissioners voted not to move forward with a housing project at the Red Fox Motel in Estacada.

Clackamas County commissioners voted to put the breaks on a project that would provide shelter for homeless individuals and later transition to workforce housing in Estacada.

During a meeting on Thursday, Jan. 28, the commission voted 3-2 to not move forward with the due-diligence phase of the purchase of the Red Fox Motel in Estacada.

Through a program called Project Turnkey, 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, 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.

Prior to the start of public comment during the Jan. 28 meeting, Clackamas County Health, Housing and Human Services director Richard Swift recommended the commission not move further at this point because there had not been adequate time for community outreach.

"(Because of the deadline for the grant), this has had to move so rapidly that it has been hard for us to work with communities. Both (Director of Housing and Housing Services) Jill Smith and myself have had conversations with both city folk and community members within Estacada, we have not had any opportunity to really sit down with the community and have vigorous conversations about what this would mean for the Estacada community," he said.

County staff said they had received 38 emails and voicemails opposing the project, two that were neutral and two in support.

Multiple Estacada community members expressed concern about the fact that they had not been previously aware of the project and said the city does not have the infrastructure to support it.

"This came as quite a shock. We do not have the infrastructure available, our police staffing is not that much. We cannot support a homeless shelter in our town," said Kimberly Binder. "My understanding is that Red Fox is no longer on the table, which we appreciate, but if it does happen to come back on the table, you will meet stiff resistance from Estacada. We stopped a raging wildfire. We will stop this."

"We take care of our people for sure, but we don't have the resources to take this on," Brandy Litkie added.

Trina Feldman described the project as "a horrible idea."

"Estacada has been growing and growing, and not all of the resources are there yet," she said, adding that some people stay at the Red Fox on a month to month basis and asked where they would go.

"I'm asking you to please hold the purchase of the Red Fox," said Mary Whitney. "And then if you decide to go that route again, please get more community input."

Jill Smith clarified that Project Turnkey was initially meant to provide short-term shelter for people impacted by the wildfire, as well as those who were already unhoused in Clackamas County.

"However, a dual purpose of that funding is to ensure that the community has housing," she said. "And honestly, that is the reason that the property was so attractive to the Housing Authority is because there's a huge need for workforce housing in Estacada. Today was just to ask the board to start doing due diligence on the property, seeing if it was a site we could consider for future development in partnership with the city."

Les Poole, a resident of Gladstone, said that community outreach surrounding the project was lacking.

"I'm concerned about what I'm hearing because I see a pattern here, that it's been just an ongoing issue for years at the county. And that is the lack of public awareness and public participation in critical issues that are affecting our future and affecting our pocketbooks," he said. "We've got a problem with communication that once again has reared its head in Clackamas County. These folks need to know what's going on in their community, so they don't end up calling you, in a panic at the last minute, which is indicative that there's something not right."

Need for diverse housing

Several speakers from Estacada discussed the value of having additional local housing possibilities.

"I was under the impression that this project was more for emergency help and home fulfilment for people that were displaced by the wildfires," said Kat Malstead. "We have people that are homeless in this community, and they're not bad people. I would really love to have our community possibly open their hearts to not equating homeless people with animals, because that's what I'm hearing. Estacada is a really welcoming place, and it makes me sad when so many people are dropping these generalities. I'm sad that the project has been pulled. I think it is necessary to address that we already have people who are displaced living here."

Katy Dunsmuir, a member of the Estacada City Council, asked the commission to explore the possibility of using the Red Fox Motel for Project Turnkey.

"There is a great need in our community. The people who spoke today might not see it, but I see it. All you need to do is lose your home for one reason or another and say, 'I want to keep living in my city, how am I going to do that?' Just to learn that there are no options for you," she said. "If you lost your home for any reason today, a wildfire, a normal house fire, joblessness because of COVID closures, whatever reason exists out there for people to lose their homes, if they want to continue living in our city, their only option is to buy a single family home right now. And a lot of people don't have that availability."

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 that they spent 30% or more of their income on housing. The analysis stated that more affordable housing for both homeowners and renters is needed.

Commissioners vote

Commissioner Sonya Fischer asked Jill Smith several clarifying questions about the due-diligence process, including the timeline for community engagement.

"Commissioner Fisher, thank you for trying to keep the project alive that no one really in the community wants. There's probably 95% against this one," said Board Chair Tootie Smith. "There's a direction that I think our board is going to go in today. And I'm going to ask that if you would please just keep your powder dry on that, and we could visit the housing issue next week in our policy session."

Tootie Smith made a motion to not move forward with Project Turnkey at the Red Fox Motel.

"Given that you had made a representation that we were going to be discussing all of this on Tuesday, I did not get my questions answered. And so I think your motion is premature," Fischer said. "I would suggest that we table the discussion until Tuesday."

Clackamas County Administrator Gary Schmidt clarified that the current order of business was deciding whether or not to move forward with due diligence for the Red Fox.

When the question was called, Housing Authority Commissioner Ann Leenstra and Fischer voted no. Schrader, Shull and Smith voted yes.

Tootie Smith criticized the process because of lack of public input.

"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. I am ashamed for my staff and I apologize to the citizens who have taken their time to testify today," she said. "Now, that's not to say that at a later date with another project, we couldn't reach out to the citizens and your government in Estacada with a very needed and important housing project, but I would like you all to be engaged."

Schrader said she hopes to continue the conversation about housing security in Estacada and suggested potential outreach with the Clackamas County Homeless Coalition.

"In my opinion, there's been a lot of misinformation and damage done, but it's not our staff's fault. It's our fault. I'll take full responsibility for that," Schrader said. "But 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."

"If I'm judging this community right, I think that targeting the homeless population, they may reject that," Tootie Smith said. "However, if we can make it a different sector of people to serve — underserved housing, people who are working that can't afford the price of homes, I think maybe that might be a better route. But you know what, we get to discuss all this again next Tuesday."

It's unclear where Clackamas County officials will consider using Project Turnkey funds next. County staff said they vetted some other properties, and most had a sale price of about $900,000, which is quite a bit more than their budget allows.


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