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by: FILE PHOTO: RAYMOND RENDLEMAN  - Clackamas County's largest public-housing property, Easton Ridge, has 264 units in 11 three-story buildings that are becoming increasingly dilapidated, and spots where temporary repairs have been made are visible.Divisions on the new Clackamas County Board of Commissioners first emerged last week on the issue of affordable housing near Clackamas Town Center.

Clackamas County’s largest public-housing property, Easton Ridge, has 264 units in 11 three-story buildings that are becoming dilapidated.

Sitting as the Housing Authority Board of Commissioners, including appointed Housing Authority Commissioner Erica Allison, county commissioners voted 4-2 on Thursday to authorize sale of $24 million in bonds for a planned renovation. Commissioners Jim Bernard, Paul Savas, Martha Schrader and Allison voted to support the bond sale.

Approval of the bond sale before the end of February allowed the project to move forward at set bid prices, saving Clackamas County an estimated $500,000 to $1 million in cost increases for construction materials.

“Frankly, I’m not ready to kick out all those people or subject them to mold damage by living in the current environment,” Savas said, conditioning his support on several accountability measures that were adopted as part of the 4-2 vote.

Chairman John Ludlow and Commissioner Tootie Smith opposed the project, both for its own merits and because of their philosophical skepticism of public housing.

A ‘managment problem’

During the past decade, between $150,000 and $500,000 in annual profits from rents at Easton went to offset the Housing Authority’s budget in other areas. Easton’s one-bedroom, 717-square-foot apartments have rented for $640 per month, with rent up to $740 for a 1,010-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment with two bathrooms.

“We’re in a position where we have to borrow a lot of money from the taxpayers,” Smith said at a Tuesday work session. “This property was pretty much what I consider a cash cow for the county, and during that time no deferred maintenance was done on this building to make sure that it wouldn’t dilapidate.”

Cindy Becker, director of the county’s Health, Housing and Human Services, pointed out that the county spent about $1.5 million on repairs at Easton since purchasing the building in 1996. In 2008, a financing agreement with Washington Mutual to make more repairs there fell though because of a national tax-crediting-market crisis.

Ludlow saw a “management problem” with the county’s lack of reinvestment in Easton and made clear that he would vote with Smith on the issue.

“We may have our first split vote, and that’s OK,” Ludlow said.

Smith added that she thought it might be time for the county to get out of the housing business.

“We can’t be all to everyone,” Smith said.

Bernard had advocated setting aside funds for future maintenance and argued last week that the investment in Eastham would return dividends.

“I think it is our responsibility to provide affordable housing, but I’m willing to have the discussion,” Bernard said.

Ludlow visited Easton residents who told him that they didn’t need new bathrooms or kitchens. According to county officials, Oregon Housing and Human Services told the county it would only provide funding if the project would modernize the apartments, replace most of the kitchens and 15 percent of the bathrooms.

Ludlow noted his position on moving forward with the project wouldn’t change if the county could show that all the repairs were necessary.

“This is not a good investment,” he said. “I don’t think I’m going to change my mind.”

Details of plan

Accountability measures include conducting a performance audit on the housing authority, establishing an oversight commission that includes members of the public and convening a full discussion of the county’s policy on affordable housing.

“As a commissioner in 2007, we made a policy decision to keep affordable housing, knowing we would get saddled with maintenance costs in the future,” Schrader said. “People should have their basic needs met — including decent housing and food to eat — in order to be participants in their democracy and to be healthy and happy.”

Smith said she cannot continue on any project without deciding on Clackamas County housing policy.

“It is a measure of a compassionate society that we provide housing and other services to our most vulnerable populations. However, we should first decide if we should be in the housing business before we spend $20 million on a project in which we could end up upside down,” she said.

Ludlow argued there were far too many questions about the project.

“When the housing authority found out that there were leaks and siding infiltrated by water in 2004 and did nothing about it for six years, that’s a management problem,” he said.

As questions surfaced about the mold and water-intrusion issues, Housing Authority officials say they worked to address problems as best they could under financial constraints.

The new project will replace the building’s siding, windows and doors, as well as upgrade interior ventilation and drainage.

The project is expected to start in mid-February, and county officials hope to complete it 14 months after breaking ground.

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