Seven projects have been funded so far under Project Turnkey, which converts hotels and motels into emergency shelter or affordable housing
In March, nearly 100 people displaced by the Holiday Farm Fire filed into the rooms of a building formerly known as the Red Lion Inn & Suites in Eugene. Among them were 35 kids, along with 28 pets.
The hotel was the first to open as a part of Project Turnkey, a $65 million statewide initiative that arose in response to the pandemic and the 2020 wildfires. The project aims to convert hotels and motels — underutilized during the pandemic — into short-term, non-congregate housing for fire survivors and people who are homeless. Long term, most units will be converted to transitional or permanent supportive housing, and some will remain shelters.
Project Turnkey follows a similar California initiative, Project Homekey, which has repurposed 6,000 units into shelter spaces since last summer. While nonprofits and governments have long rented rooms for vulnerable populations, these state investments in infrastructure are unprecedented, according to Megan Loeb, program officer of Housing & Economic Vitality at Oregon Community Foundation, the organization charged with administering the funds.
“It has a wild optimism about it,” Loeb said. “It offers not just that gateway to permanent housing, but it provides permanent housing at the same moment.”
Across Oregon, seven projects have been funded, and the state is on track to meet its goal of buying 18 to 20 properties that will add 1,000 units to the state’s housing supply. Out of the state’s general fund, $30 million was earmarked for wildfire-affected counties, while $35 million will go toward the remaining 28 counties to shelter people experiencing non-fire related homelessness. The funds have an expiration date of June 30, at which time any unused dollars will revert back to state coffers.
Additionally, state lawmakers are hoping to further reduce restrictions for Turnkey projects. On March 31, the House passed House Bill 3261 to limit zoning restrictions when converting hotels and motels into emergency shelter or affordable housing. The bill is now headed to the Senate.
Lane County and its housing authority, Homes for Good, were one of the first to receive funds to house fire survivors. On Feb. 26, Oregon Community Foundation awarded it $5.56 million to house the many people still reeling from the Holiday Farm Fire, which burned more than 400 homes in September. Across Oregon, the state reports that 4,000 homes were destroyed in the 2020 wildfire season, nearly half of which were mobile homes providing affordable housing.
Lane County started welcoming residents to the Eugene hotel on March 8, ahead of most funded Turnkey projects. Organizations in Ashland and Pendleton opened motels to a limited number of residents on April 1, and residents will move into a Medford motel this week. A motel in Corvallis is slated to open this month as well, Lincoln City plans to open its hotel to residents in May, and Klamath Falls will open its hotel and RV park this summer.
“Several of these families were literally homeless at the time that we came into possession of the building,” Jacob Fox, executive director of Homes for Good, told Street Roots. “If we had even bare bones facilities ready to house people, we wanted to go ahead and house them.”
“I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility for the state to find a home for every person experiencing chronic homelessness in Oregon.”
Since September, many wildfire survivors have been either homeless or shuffled from motel to motel. Unlike those living situations, the Eugene hotel requires residents to take part in a case management program designed to help them find permanent housing. The hotel is equipped with new service offices, a soon-to-be donation closet and free food for residents placed in the building by the Oregon Department of Human Services.
Wakan Alferes, supportive housing director of Homes for Good, hopes residents can find a sense of normalcy and “settle a little” in the space, though she said that can be difficult for families that, for example, used to live on the McKenzie River and are now living in a hotel room with two kids and three dogs.
“The general sense right now is that people have been in hotels for a long time,” Alferes said. “They are feeling pretty cooped up and a little bit bored.”
For one resident, Tom Cornum, 65, this is the third hotel he’s lived in since his Vida home burned in September. With one leg, he’s disabled and said it’s not easy picking everything up and moving over and over again.
“Living in a motel is really nice, but living in your own home’s a lot nicer,” Cornum said.
Another resident, Heather Holland, told Street Roots via Facebook Messenger, “We are a family of three and have been cooking out of a mini fridge and microwave for over six (months).”
Some funded projects took time to add kitchenettes to their units, but Homes for Good prioritized housing people as quickly as possible. Staff said the hotel is still far from perfect because they didn’t design the space themselves.
Homes for Good is working to build community in the building by letting residents choose the new name of the hotel. They are deciding between “Blue Canyon Bridge” and “Owl Creek Crossing,” which both have geographic significance to the Holiday Farm Fire area.
After all fire survivors have found stable housing, the units will be converted to permanent supportive housing, a model designed to provide long-term housing assistance and supportive services to people who have experienced homelessness.
The timeline for converting the Turnkey hotels into long-term housing depends on the needs of each community. Within 24 months, Fox, of Homes for Good, expects the Eugene hotel to become permanent housing. The agency plans to add kitchenettes to the units and reconfigure common areas for more space for case management.
“The great thing is, because of the Turnkey program, there’s no debt on the building,” Fox said, referring to the $5.56 million in state funds that went toward acquiring the hotel. “All we have to do is find the money to convert the units, which is a much smaller amount of money. This makes it much more feasible and quicker.”
Most Turnkey projects plan on paying for operation costs through a combination of state and federal resources and fundraising dollars. On Jan. 21, President Joe Biden signed an executive order saying the Federal Emergency Management Agency would reimburse 100% of the costs of non-congregate shelters that have opened since the start of the pandemic. Prior to this, FEMA had only been covering 75% of costs, and service providers struggled to secure a 25% match.
Regardless, most Turnkey projects, including Eugene’s, don’t plan to lean entirely on FEMA as the sole funding source, according to Loeb, from Oregon Community Foundation.
“Most of (the projects) have other sources of funding they’re pursuing and hopefully likely to receive from state and federal resources,” Loeb said.
All applicants — which can be nonprofits, housing authorities, cities or counties — were required to submit an operating plan and budget to the Project Turnkey Advisory Committee, which is composed of housing advocates from across the state. Committee members make their decisions based on the county’s rate of existing homelessness relative to the state and the number of unsheltered people. They also consider the level of community support for the project, whether they are a culturally specific provider, the strength of the funding model and their geographic location.
In addition to the Eugene project, Ashland, Medford, Klamath Falls, Corvallis, Lincoln City and Pendleton have received Turnkey funds to house either wildfire survivors or other vulnerable populations. The state aims to give organizations flexibility to meet the needs of each community, so some projects will act as a low-barrier shelter, while others will act more as transitional housing.
The projects vary also in terms of what populations they focus on. Corvallis Housing First, for example, is prioritizing unhoused community members, including people with disabilities, veterans, people of color and seniors. Klamath Falls, on the other hand, is using funds to purchase both a hotel and RV park, which will be used as long-term housing for formerly incarcerated people.
The cost per unit varies widely depending on the location of the project, but so far, the average cost per room is around $85,000, which supporters argue is cheaper than building from scratch.
In addition to the seven funded properties, which add up to 300 units, at least 18 other projects are still under consideration in the committee. Applicants are from Coos, Deschutes, Douglas, Grant, Josephine, Malheur, Marion, Multnomah, Washington and Yamhill counties.
According to Loeb, “These are high quality applicants, and there are more of them than we have funds to be able to grant.”
The finalists will be announced in the coming weeks, since all Project Turnkey money needs to be spent by June. Loeb said that during this project, she has realized that real estate is “fickle,” and transactions can quickly go sideways. For example, Clackamas County faced setbacks gaining Turnkey funds when two potential motel purchases fell through. A plan to purchase the Econo Lodge in Jennings Lodge failed due to roofing issues, and the acquisition of Red Fox Motel in Estacada was abandoned amid community opposition.
On the whole however, Loeb said, communities have been supportive of the projects. “I think in most of our communities there’s a recognition that this is a solution that is needed, and that this is helping people who are part of our community,” she said.
Project Turnkey emerged through a pandemic task force headed by the Association of Oregon Counties, as well as the Oregon Health Authority, League of Oregon Cities and Oregon Health and Community Services. Loeb, who was a member of this group, said they saw how California had pivoted to not just rent rooms, but buy them, and the group decided to follow their lead in making investments in communities.
“It felt like a strategic risk that was worth taking because we have a humanitarian crisis,” Loeb said.
The group brought the concept to the state Legislature, and Rep. Pam Marsh (D-Ashland) and former Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer jumped on board. Keny-Guyer, who had long chaired the House Committee on Human Services and Housing, saw Turnkey as a way to stop private equity firms from buying up distressed properties and driving up rents, as they had done during the 2008 recession.
DIRECTOR’S DESK: Today, save motels. Tomorrow, housing.
Describing her thinking, Keny-Guyer said, “We know that there’s a lot of private interest that’s coming in and trying to do the same thing, and we shouldn’t miss the boat on this. … we need this property, and we need it most immediately for homeless because our old solutions around congregate care, in shelters, don’t work with COVID.”
Though on a statewide scale, Keny-Guyer said 1,000 units is only a drop in the bucket in a state that has been found to be 140,000 housing units behind demand. But, she argues, that’s 1,000 people with a roof over their heads, and this impact will be felt in smaller communities.
Though the project was underway, Oregon shifted Project Turnkey following the September fires to focus more on housing those who had lost their homes in the flames.
Unlike California, Oregon opted to use general fund money rather than CARES money because it allowed the program more flexibility. Since it relied on CARES money, all of California’s Homekey money had to be spent by the end of 2020. Many potential projects were unable to meet that deadline, and Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed putting another $750 million toward the program.
While California’s initiative has been characterized by sweeping statewide policies from the top down, Loeb said that Oregon’s program is much more community centric.
“I think true to (Oregon’s) spirit, this feels like an organic community-led process for each of these applicants to do this work,” Loeb said. “It really has been rooted in each application, each region, each jurisdiction and how they’ve come forward to create a solution that meets their population.”
Loeb referred to Project Turnkey as a “historical investment in infrastructure” and hopes the state will consider adopting this model longer term. “It hopefully will be a model that we follow in times that aren’t ridden with crisis,” Loeb said. “I think sometimes within moments of dire need is where those great ideas come.”
In Eugene, Fox is seeing this model’s success first-hand. He said the housing authority was able to acquire the hotel and house people at a pace he had never seen before. He hopes that, with the political will, this method will be replicated in the years to come.
“From what I’ve seen in response to wildfires and the COVID-19 pandemic, I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility for the state to find a home for every person experiencing chronic homelessness in Oregon,” Fox said.