Bonamici bill would take Project Turnkey national

U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici says she is under no illusions that her legislation to take Project Turnkey national will result in immediate conversion of former hotels and motels that will get people off the streets and connected with services.

But she said that the Oregon program has shown itself to be effective in helping formerly homeless people get what they need while many of them move on to permanent housing. The Oregon Community Foundation was the administrator of the program, which has resulted in 1,382 units at 32 sites in every corner of the state.

“Housing is the foundation to people’s success. If we want to get people back in the workforce and off the streets, they need a place,” the Democrat from Beaverton said June 6 after meeting with local advocates at the foundation offices in Portland.

“This model Project Turnkey is a way to do that by using existing structures so that it is more cost-effective. It is more expeditious to take an existing building and convert it so it can give people a home.”

Lawmakers started the program in 2020 — though it took a second vote by the Emergency Board to take it statewide — and expanded it in 2022. (In the second round, buildings other than former hotels and motels qualified for purchases.) The state’s total of $125 million increased Oregon’s year-around shelter supply by 30% in three years.

The cost per converted unit in the second round was under $100,000, far less than the estimated per-unit construction costs of new low-income housing.

Of the statewide totals, 466 units are at eight sites in Multnomah and Washington counties.

“It was a one-time investment that we believe is going to be a long-term benefit to our state,” said Megan Loeb, the senior program officer who took the lead for the Oregon Community Foundation.

An idea from Oregon

The program began as a way to provide temporary housing for people who lost their homes in the 2020 Labor Day wildfires that swept Oregon. Of the more than 4,000 homes destroyed, the largest concentration (2,400) were in the Rogue Valley. After an initial vote against a statewide program, lawmakers reversed themselves a few weeks later while the coronavirus pandemic was still unchecked.

Bonamici’s legislation (HR 8297) has Democratic co-sponsors, including Oregon Reps. Andrea Salinas of Tigard and Earl Blumenauer of Portland, the latter retiring from Congress at the end of this year. She has no Republican so far, though she and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania have teamed up on a successful federal pilot project for housing people in recovery.

“There are people who are very much aware of these issues,” she said. “So I take that as a sign of hope that we can convince colleagues that this is a good way to help with these challenges.”

The bill would allocate $1 billion to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, not only for grants to acquire buildings but services connected with their residents. The money also could be spent on security deposits for rentals and down payments for first-time home buyers.

“The common feedback I hear is that there are strict guidelines in our federal funding and they limit their effectiveness,” Bonamici said. “I’m happy to say this is a flexible source of funding.”

Bonamici said afterward that because this is an election year — and there will be breaks for the national party conventions and the usual August recess — the 118th Congress does not have much time left to complete the few must-do items, let alone advance new legislation.

What local partners say

The Oregon Community Foundation oversaw the state program, including the real estate transactions involved in acquiring the buildings. But local organizations were responsible for operating the shelters and connecting people with other services.

Bonamici heard from each of the three Project Turnkey operators in Washington County: Centro Cultural, 21 units at Casa Amparo in Forest Grove; Washington County, 61 units at the Bridge shelter program in Hillsboro, and Family Promise of Tualatin Valley, the newest one with 114 units in Tigard that opened last summer.

In addition, Washington County used proceeds from a 2018 Metro bond to purchase a former Quality Inn in Aloha and convert it into 54 studio apartments for permanent supportive housing, which is combined with on-site services such as mental health and substance use treatment. Bonamici toured the remodeled complex last year.

Kathryn Harrington, Washington County board chair, said the experience gained from operating Casa Amparo and the Bridge shelter helped the county when it opened Heartwood Commons in Aloha.

“The local flexibility and commitment have enabled this critical operation of housing units to increase shelter capacity, which we did not have before to meet the housing needs in our communities,” Harrington said. “It has been life-changing for so many people.”

Angela Hurley is a manager who spoke for Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Clinic, which serves low-income people in Washington and Yamhill counties. She said the added housing has helped, because people find it difficult to heal without housing. Two clinic staffers are assigned to coordinate with residents.

Pam Blumenthal spoke for College Housing Northwest, which has 74 units under Project Turnkey that will open this summer in Gresham.

“College students are often overlooked in the development of affordable-housing policy and often excluded from traditional housing resources, such as Section 8 and the low-income housing tax credit,” she said. Her references were to federal rent vouchers and a federal incentive for construction of subsidized housing.

The other metro area sites are Rockwood Tower, 75 units operated by Rockwood Community Development Corp. in Gresham; River Haven, 70 units operated by Central City Concern in Portland; Stark Street Shelter, 43 units operated by Multnomah County in Gresham, and Urban League of Portland, operating 7 units for women leaving incarceration.

Bonamici said that while she is gathering facts, there was another reason for the roundtable discussion.

“When you talk about policy in the abstract,” she said, “it is not nearly as meaningful as saying here’s a story about how this policy and how this investment is helping turn around lives.”


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