A former Finnish boarding house in Uniontown could become a dormitory for homeless people looking to get back on their feet.
Helping Hands, a nonprofit that works with the homeless to rebuild their lives and find jobs and housing, announced it has entered a purchase agreement with Northwest Oregon Housing Authority to buy the large yellow house on Marine Drive next door to Motel 6.
The organization plans to turn the boarding house into dorm-style temporary housing. Alan Evans, the nonprofit’s executive director, hopes the house can accommodate up to 60 or 70 beds, a portion of which would be set aside for emergency shelter.
Helping Hands is already well-established in Seaside, but an expansion to Astoria is a critical step, said Raven Brown, the organization’s development director.
Astoria is the Clatsop County seat and many resources will now only be a walk or a short bus ride away.
“We’re really looking forward to balancing out our presence on both sides of Clatsop County,” she said.
The sale is contingent on Helping Hands obtaining any permits the city requires, Evans said.
The city and Helping Hands staff have had preliminary meetings to figure out what the re-entry organization needs to apply for going forward. Homeless shelters are not explicitly addressed in Astoria’s codes, and the Helping Hands model is different than the average shelter. The facility could fall under the category of a semipublic use, said Mike Morgan, interim city planner.
“It’s in a good location for what they want to do,” Morgan said. “They’re not in a residential neighborhood like the (Astoria Warming Center) that would raise some concerns of neighbors. I think it’s a good location, but that exterior is in really rough shape.”
One thing Morgan knows for sure is that the house is a historic building and any exterior repairs will need to adhere to the city’s historic preservation standards.
“It’s a big task to take on that building,” he said.
Costly to repair
The Uniontown Apartments, built around 1896, is the last remaining Finnish boarding house on Marine Drive, according to city documents. Repairs could be costly. Several years ago, the housing authority calculated it would cost about $4 million to renovate both the Uniontown Apartments and the Owens-Adair Apartments on Exchange Street.
The scope of work for the Uniontown Apartments included repairing and reinstalling windows, repairing and painting all interior drywall, removing and replacing all flooring and sub floors, installing new heating units, electrical wiring upgrades, roof repairs and dealing with any instances of asbestos, lead paint and mold.
“To bring it up to government standards is just too expensive,” said Scott Lee, the chairman of the housing authority board as well as chairman of the county Board of Commissioners. “We wanted to flip it and hopefully get it to somebody who could serve the same population that (the housing authority) serves and who goes along with our mission rather than have it just turned into condos.”
The housing authority decided to offer the house to Helping Hands before putting it on the market. The two had collaborated before. The housing authority board voted unanimously to approve the sale at its meeting last week.
“Alan Evans has a track record of success with these buildings and we felt that Helping Hands would be a great organization to continue the legacy (of the building),” Lee said.
‘Positive for Uniontown’
Lee has already heard some complaints and concerns from people who live or work in the area who worry the shelter could be detrimental to the neighborhood. The Astoria Warming Center, at the First United Methodist Church on Franklin Avenue and across the street from apartments and houses, has faced criticism for how it has operated in the neighborhood. Some of the criticism, board members admit, was justified. They have tried to tweak how the center is operated this year.
The Uniontown Apartments are on the north side of busy Marine Drive, sandwiched between a motel and a store that sells work wear and across the street from a coffee shop and a bar. Lee hopes people wait and figure out what Helping Hands plans to offer before jumping to conclusions, he said.
“It’s going to be positive for our community,” he said. “It’s positive for Uniontown.”
The project received support from leaders such as state Senator Betsy Johnson, District Attorney Josh Marquis and Astoria Mayor Arline LaMear.
“This project and the work Helping Hands does aligns closely with current city, county and state priorities for addressing the housing crisis in Oregon and the effect it has had on the most vulnerable among us,” Johnson wrote, also noting that her husband, John Helm, serves on Helping Hands’ board of directors. Johnson, D-Scappoose, has also been a member of the board and is now an advisory board member.
All of the Helping Hands centers operate on referrals and work only with people who are willing to abide by the organization’s requirements, which include sobriety, random drug tests, mandatory volunteer hours, participation in weekly process groups and proof of a job search. The nonprofit does not provide services to sex offenders or to people who make a lifestyle of being homeless and are not interested in changing their lives, Evans said. Helping Hands created a similar single-campus, apartment-like dorm in Tillamook at the former naval air station, a substantially larger and more complicated structure.
“Anytime you say you’re opening a facility (like this one), you get some resistance because people feel they know what you do,” Evans said. “We’re very good at what we do.”