Oregon Homeless Shelter Approach may go National

An innovative Oregon program turned $125 million into nearly 1,400 new shelter beds across 32 facilities in 18 Oregon counties. Now, U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici wants to take the state’s Project Turnkey program nationwide.

The Democratic Oregon representative was in Portland on Thursday to meet with community leaders who have worked on developing shelters and housing through Project Turnkey, a state program that launched in 2020 to add shelter space by converting motels into emergency shelters. A second round of state funding in 2022 added more types of buildings, including repurposed apartments and single-family homes, but the model remained the same: People or families coming into the shelters had their own rooms and access to services.

“Oregon really has been at the forefront in developing innovative strategies to address the housing shortage and to help people who are experiencing homelessness transition from the street into stable housing,” Bonamici said.

She introduced House Resolution 8297, the Project Turnkey Act, in May with 15 Democratic co-sponsors, including fellow Oregon Reps. Andrea Salinas and Earl Blumenauer. It would allocate $1 billion annually for Project Turnkey grants through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and allow grant recipients to use the money to convert vacant buildings into housing or shelter, provide direct rent support and assistance with security deposits and utility bills, contribute to down payments and repair and expand emergency shelters.

Bonamici said she isn’t counting on passing anything this year, with Congress away from D.C. for most of the rest of the year, but she’s trying to build support. She noted that she has a Republican cosponsor, Pennsylvania’s Brian Fitzpatrick, on a separate bill for recovery housing, and that there is a growing bipartisan awareness in Washington around housing issues.

“I’m really excited to take these stories back with me and share why this is a meaningful program,” Bonamici told participants in the town hall.

Tigard project

The Bridge to Home shelter in Tigard was the final one funded under Project Turnkey last year, said Rose Money, executive director of the Family Promise of Tualatin Valley that operates the shelter. Money from Project Turnkey, Washington County and the city of Tigard cleared the way for the nonprofit to turn a Quality Inn hotel into a shelter that can house up to 70 households in rooms with kitchenettes.

Before Project Turnkey allowed the Tualatin Valley program to buy a hotel, it was renting individual hotel rooms to house people and families. But as more people started traveling as the COVID pandemic lightened, available rooms were harder to find.

“When we were in that motel environment, the motel industry started coming back to life and people were traveling again, so our ability to secure those 40 rooms was harder and harder and harder,” she said. “We went from 40 down to 37, down to 22. And we thought, ‘What are we going to do?’ because the need was growing in the community.”

For the Urban League of Portland, which received $2.7 million to adapt a multifamily complex into seven units for women returning from incarceration, the funding meant providing stability. Two women who participated in the program are the responsible adults in their children’s lives again, and that likely wouldn’t have happened if the Urban League was limited to providing shelter in a motel or congregate setting, president and CEO Nkenge Harmon Johnson said.

“Project Turnkey for us was an opportunity to acquire an asset, because that’s important to our ability to survive as an organization and not be at the mercy of these motel owners who now know the money’s in the long term leases,” she said. “Beyond that, it gives us an opportunity to make commitments to community partners  to say, ‘Hey, I can get you five beds.’ Because I know you can always fill them and I will always have them, and I’m not at the mercy of someone else. It makes a big difference.”

Longer-term plans

Most of the community organizations that own Project Turnkey shelters plan to convert them into longer-term housing, including apartments with below-market rents or permanent supportive housing that includes on-site social services.

Creating shelters and future affordable housing in existing buildings has proven to be cheaper than new construction: According to the Oregon Community Foundation, a Portland nonprofit that oversaw the development Project Turnkey, the average unit costs less than $100,000, compared to a pre-pandemic statewide average of $226,000 and a nearly $375,000 cost per unit for affordable apartments funded by Portland’s 2016 housing bond.

But retrofitting buildings also brings some challenges, not all of which can be solved with money from state or local governments. Jes Larson, assistant director of Washington County Housing Services, said one glaring example is sprinklers.

“These are great, ready-made buildings that have immediate shelter for our community, that sometimes don’t meet code in really big expensive ways, like required sprinkling systems,” Larsen said. “And that wasn’t a part of the original Project Turnkey plan. It’s not a part of the flexible homeless services dollars that I get to work with in Washington, so we have to figure it out.”

by Julia Shumway, Oregon Capital Chronicle

Do you have a story for The Advocate? Email editor@corvallisadvocate.com