At a Clatsop County commission meeting last year, Assessment and Taxation Director Suzanne Johnson reviewed a number of properties that the county was looking to put up for auction.
Many of the blighted properties had gone through foreclosure, and Johnson told personal stories of the people evicted from their homes for not paying property taxes.
Toward the end of her presentation, Johnson’s tone changed as she introduced a fourplex on Agate Street near Uniontown. “This is going to be the happier story,” she said. “We’ll save the best for last.”
Months later, a remodel is underway that will transform the fourplex into affordable housing with services for single women who are pregnant or parenting and are in early recovery from substance abuse.
Opioid addiction is a lingering problem in Clatsop County, where 10.6 percent of Oregon Health Plan members have a substance abuse disorder, according to the Oregon Health Authority. A handful of organizations collaborating on the project hope it will help mothers break their own addictions and prevent them from passing it on to their children.
“It’s changing that whole generational cycle of substance abuse,” said Karen Wheeler, business development director with Greater Oregon Behavioral Health Inc. “What we want to do is really foster a culture of recovery and a culture of progress.”
The project is also a “double win” in that it provides additional housing along with a replicable model for rural areas, said Kate Allen, a community development specialist.
“Four units at a time or six units at a time are much more achievable,” Allen said.
Tenants will be women who have recently completed a treatment program. They typically will spend six months to two years at the complex as they continue to work toward independence, Wheeler said.
“They won’t be brand new in recovery,” Wheeler said. “They will have already been done with treatment, and they’ll be on the road to recovery for the long haul.”
Women will work with peer mentors and have other services provided by Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare, the county’s mental health contractor. Their children will have access to early learning services.
The women will work on navigating healthy relationships and parenting techniques, said Amy Baker, the executive director of Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare.
“It makes the most sense to start early with children and families,” Baker said. “Their likely outcomes are going to be so much better.”
Wheeler started at Greater Oregon Behavioral Health after working with the Oregon Health Authority, where she headed its integrated health programs. One of the first projects in her new position at the mental health organization was identifying affordable housing opportunities for those recovering from substance abuse.
She eventually came in contact with the county, which had recently donated a house in Alderbrook to a nonprofit housing organization to fix and sell, with revenue going toward future projects. The move signaled a new tactic as the county grapples with low-income housing woes.
Like the Alderbrook property, the Agate Street fourplex was derelict with garbage and deferred maintenance but rife with potential. At the December meeting, county commissioners passed the property on to the behavioral health organization.
“That was a miracle and a nice miracle at that,” Wheeler said. “I was really grateful to the county for having the vision to do that.”
In addition to the more than $350,000 from Oregon Housing and Community Services, the behavioral health organization and local fundraising, the Northwest Oregon Housing Authority agreed to offer vouchers to help residents.
“I think the connection GOBHI has with CBH is ideal,” Allen said. “With NOHA in the picture, the operational side is very solid.”
The remodel of the century-old building — headed by contractor Randy Stemper — began in July and is expected to be finished by December. Soon after, up to six women and their children will be able to move in.
“We believe it will be full very shortly after it opens,” Wheeler said.
‘Drop in the bucket’
The project — unique to the county but not other areas, especially larger cities — is a “drop in the bucket,” Baker said. “I can assure you the need is far beyond the four to six families we’ll be able to serve. You have to start somewhere.”
Scott Lee, the chairman of the county commission and the housing authority board, said the project is a good example of organizations working together to solve the county’s housing shortage.
“I’m encouraged by this, and I think these are the kind of creative ideas where we can come together and carve out niches and funding sources,” Lee said. “A lot of times we tend to be siloed, and the more we can collaborate, the stronger we can become.”