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Shelter in bind over city fees

Requirements raise cost, cause delays for transitional St. Johns homeless facility


PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JAIME VALDEZ - The Community of Hope is working to expand its shelter for women and children in St. Johns. Program director Linda Jo Devlaeminck says city costs may force the project to be scaled back.A small North Portland nonprofit organization that is planning to expand its shelter for homeless women and children may have to scale back its project due to construction requirements imposed by multiple city bureaus.

This spring, the Community of Hope intends to more than double the capacity of the only transitional shelter in St. Johns. It also plans to install showers. Tenants now take showers once or twice a week in a portable unit that visits the parking lot.

Program director Linda Jo Devlaeminck says some of the requirements make sense, such as installing a fire-suppressing sprinkler system in the building. Others are harder to understand — like widening a sidewalk behind the building from 5 to 6 feet.

However, the city also is imposing application and permitting fees, along with system development charges (SDCs) that help finance citywide services. Although some have been waived, they still total tens of thousands of dollars.

“Some of the money could be better spent expanding the shelter,” says Devlaeminck, who nevertheless praises the city for trying to work with the organization.

However, the city’s unwillingness to drop all nonessential requirements and waive all of the fees and SDCs appears to fly in the face of the housing state of emergency declared by the City Council last October. At the time, Mayor Charlie Hales said the declaration would allow the city to waive code requirements to open more homeless shelters quickly.

The city subsequently opened a temporary shelter for women and couples in a former armory in Southwest Portland and one for men in a vacant downtown office building a few months later. For the Community of Hope, some of the requirements do not seem essential, such as paying the cost of a traffic study for the relatively few additional tenants.

Ken Cowdery, executive director of the Home Builders Foundation, also credits the city with trying to help, but thinks it should do even more.

“I thought we were in a state of emergency and the goal is to create as much new shelter space and housing as fast as possible. Small nonprofits like the Community of Hope can’t afford these costs,” says Cowdery, whose foundation is assisting the Community of Hope with the project.

Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who is in charge of the Portland Housing Bureau, understands some of the problems. He will ask the council on Wednesday to approve a resolution directing the housing bureau, Bureau of Development Services, and the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability to develop a proposal to “simplify regulations, remove regulatory obstacles, and expedite processes for land-use reviews and permits for affordable housing projects, mass shelters, and short-term housing.”

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JAIME VALDEZ - Community of Hope program director Linda Jo Devlaeminck stands in the shelter's kitchen. The planned expansion would add showers and more food storage, among other things.Red tape

But, even if the council approves Saltzman’s resolution, the proposal will take months to draft. In the meantime, Josh Alpert, Hales’ chief of staff, insists the city is trying to help the Community of Hope with its project, although he says the situation is not so simple. The organization wants to change its existing shelter from a temporary one to a permanent one, a request that calls a formal change of occupancy for the building and requires it to be brought up to existing state and city codes.

“Some of what’s happening is governed by state building codes, and we’re still trying figure out what the city is allowed to do. We knew there would be a learning curve on what the city could do when we declared the state of emergency. We can’t just a wave a magic wand and make all the requirements go away,” says Alpert, who insists the city is trying to be flexible.

Alpert confirms that some fees associated with the project already have been reduced, and says the city also has scaled back some of its requirements, like reducing the number of sidewalks that need to be widened from three to one. PBOT also has installed an accessibility ramp at one intersection at its own expense, instead of charging the Community of Hope.

After the Community of Hope requested a waiver because it is providing a community benefit, BDS cut its fee in half and PF&R waived its fee entirely. But that still left $3,065.50 in pre-application fees, including $1,015 owed the Portland Bureau of Transportation.

The SDCs are even more. The Bureau of Environmental Services alone is asking for more than $12,000.

Alperts says some city bureaus are still adjusting to the housing state of emergency and discussions over waiving more of the fees are ongoing.

Community needs on rise

The Community of Hope is a part of AllOne Community Services, a nonprofit organization founded by the Church of North Portland, a coalition of dozens of churches in the area.

They also coordinate the gleaning of food at the St. Johns and Village Gardens Farmers Markets, and work with The Backpack Project, the Good Samaritan Food Bank, Golden Harvesters, Hereford House, and numerous church pantries to coordinate food distribution services.

The idea of opening the Community of Hope shelter came about a few years ago after a survey conducted by the organization revealed there were no transitional shelters in St. Johns, despite a growing number of people being displaced from their homes because of increasing housing costs.

“Some Portlanders may think of St. Johns as a low-income area, but it is rapidly gentrifying,” Devlaeminck says.

The shelter originally opened as an overnight refuge in a larger church, which owns the building, across the street. But it quickly became apparent that only offering a place to sleep was not meeting the area’s needs, Devlaeminck says. That’s when it moved across the street as a 24-hour shelter with separate bedrooms, a kitchen and pantry, an indoor recreation area, and an office for Devlaeminck, the sole employee.

According to city records, the two-story building originally was built as a church in 1953. It was subsequently used as a Sunday school and small business cooperative. Two years ago, the Community of Hope requested and received a temporary permit from the city to house up to 15 people. Now the organization has applied to permanently house up to 32 people

When the organization thought about expanding the shelter last year, they connected with the Home Builders Foundation. Started in 1997, the foundation has a shelter development program that helps nonprofit organizations maintain and upgrade their facilities. It already has contributed well over $1 million in donated supplies and services to numerous projects in the region.

According to Cowdery, the Community of Hope is typical of many nonprofit shelter providers in the region. They usually operate on small budgets with limited staff out of converted buildings, including houses. The populations they serve include homeless singles, families with children, unaccompanied youth, and women and children experiencing domestic violence.

The foundation recently completed the first-ever survey of such facilities in the region to better understand their maintenance and repair needs. It received information from 43 facilities operated by 22 organizations. The majority are less than 5,000 square feet and have fewer than 50 beds. Many need some upgrades — especially repaired exterior walls and roofs, and expanded kitchens. Few have money set aside for such work, however, because simply raising sufficient operating funds is a constant challenge.

The foundation helped the Community of Hope draw up its remodeling plans and navigate the permitting process. Cowdery says he hopes the city will reduce the costs it is imposing on the organization even more so that its limited funds will go further.

“I believe the city is starting to understand the challenges facing small nonprofit organizations, which are essential to meeting the needs of the homeless,” Cowdery says.

Fundraising underway

The total budget for expanding the Community of Hope shelter is estimated at around $380,000, including such nonessential work as replacing the roof and all the siding. The cost of just meeting all city requirements is still being determined.

The Community of Hope, so far, has raised $55,000 for the project, including a $25,000 grant from the Collins Foundation.

Other fundraising efforts include an online account at: gofundme.com/cohrenovationfund

A fundraising event also is scheduled at 7 p.m. Friday, April 8, at the North Star Ballroom, 635 N. Killingsworth Court. Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek will give the keynote address.

More information can be found at: communityofhopepdx.org

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