Board approves first supportive housing development from Wapato proceeds

September 14, 2018

Commissioner Lori Stegmann sponsored a resolution to invest Wapato proceeds into affordable supportive housing.
PORTLAND — The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners voted Thursday to invest sale proceeds from the isolated, expensive and never-opened Wapato jail into a direct solution for chronic homelessness: dozens of new supportive housing apartments in Old Town/Chinatown.

The 3-0 vote, with Commissioners Sharon Meieran and Loretta Smith absent, means the County can spend $4 million helping the Portland Housing Bureau purchase and renovate the Westwind Apartments at NW 6th Avenue and Flanders Street.

The Housing Bureau plans to overhaul the existing affordable units at the Westwind. Roughly half of the 70 units are currently not occupied because of safety concerns. The refurbished single-room-occupancy and studio units would be paired with supportive services for individuals exiting homelessness.

The partnership was first announced Tuesday, Sept. 11., during a joint session of the Portland City Council and Multnomah County Board of Commissioners. The session was devoted to the next steps in the two governments’ shared commitment to add 2,000 units of supportive housing by 2028.

Since the goal was set in October 2017, more than 500 new units are either operating or are in development. The Westwind project, the second announced in recent weeks based on joint City and County funding, will add to that total.

"We have built a strong foundation in response to our regional housing crisis, but we need to keep building, and invest in the next phase: supportive housing,” said Commissioner Lori Stegmann, who helped lead the effort to fund the County’s contribution.

Marc Jolin, director of the Joint Office of Homeless Services, discusses the Westwind Apartments on Thursday, Sept. 13.
County leaders created a supportive housing fund after the Board of Commissioners sold the Wapato site for $5 million in April — capping a 22-year saga that took root when then-Sheriff Dan Noelle led a push to add jail beds the County soon did not need and couldn’t afford to operate, because of voter-approved limits on property taxes.

As their fellow commissioners considered the Wapato sale, Commissioner Stegmann worked with Chair Deborah Kafoury to pass the resolution that created the fund, by requiring that all proceeds from the sale fund to fund long-term, supportive housing.

As part of the resolution, Commissioner Stegmann convened a Housing Strategy Workgroup with representation from each commissioner's office and department leadership, including the Joint Office of Homeless Services, to prioritize the highest and best use of the County's limited resources.

The goal of the workgroup was to identify priorities where funding would make a significant difference and could leverage other resources — exactly what the Westwind project will do.

The redeveloped Westwind Apartments will not only preserve dozens of naturally occurring affordable housing in a part of the community that has recently lost hundreds of affordable units to the private market. But it will also convert those affordable units into supportive units.

The $21 million Westwind project will be also funded through urban renewal funding and the City’s 2016 affordable-housing bond.

"I can't think of a better project that reflects the workgroup’s priorities and leverages our scarce resources." Commissioner Stegmann said. “I was proud to introduce a resolution that moves us closer to that goal."

Chair Deborah Kafoury during the Sept. 13 board meeting.
Supportive housing — which combines deep affordability with intensive mental health and addiction services — is essential for helping people with the most difficulty finding housing not only obtain homes, but also keep them.

Supportive housing has been proven to end the painful and expensive cycle that sends some neighbors from hospital beds to jail beds to shelter beds to sidewalks and back again.

Ending those cycles by providing supportive housing, in turn, saves money spent on emergency health care, Medicaid and public safety, among other services.

A report from consultant CSH presented during the joint City/County session found that a night in supportive housing costs $59 to $64, compared to the $500 cost of an emergency room visit, the $210 cost of a night in jail or the $888 cost of a night at the state hospital.

Commissioners voted to formally accept that report, which charts a path toward their 2,000-unit goal, in a separate action Thursday.

“Because of the strong working relationship we have with the city, because of our track record, we were able to move quickly and seize an opportunity that would have been lost,” Chair Kafoury said Thursday. “We would have lost these units to the private market. I want to commend all of our partners who’ve been working so hard in tandem.”