Congregants at First Presbyterian Church are purchasing a building downtown with plans to create affordable and workforce housing.
The building, on Marine Drive across the street from Vintage Hardware and Sears, houses Mallternative and Riverside Vapes on the bottom floor but contains 50 studio apartments on the two upper floors. The group will close on the building by the end of the month.
Pastor Bill Van Nostran, who spearheaded the effort and negotiated the sale with owner Bernard Bjork, is not sure how many apartments will end up on the market or if some might be converted into larger units.
No one has lived in the apartments for years and the building will require a great deal of work to bring it up to code before any apartments can be rented, Van Nostran said.
But, he added, “There’s all kinds of potential.”
Van Nostran did not disclose the price, or discuss who in the church contributed money to purchase the building. The real market value of the property has been listed between $300,000 and just over $500,000 in recent years, according to county records.
An advisory committee, whose members include a mix of congregants and others in the community, such as Todd Johnston of the Northwest Oregon Housing Authority, met for the first time only recently. The committee will be applying for nonprofit status and forming a board to pursue funding.
“It won’t solve the housing issue in and of itself, but it’s a start,” said Ron Zilli, a state forester who is volunteering on the advisory committee.
It is too early to say exactly how the housing project will unfold, but Van Nostran sees it as a community effort.
“We’re hoping to make this a community project and First Presbyterian Church would just be the catalyst,” he said. “There’s every hope and certainty that we’ll be able to, in a couple of years I hope, turn this around.”
Van Nostran and members of his congregation began looking for buildings they might be able to buy and offer as low-cost housing last year. The pastor previously served on the city’s homelessness solutions task force and is a board member for the Astoria Warming Center.
“From everything we’ve read and seen, affordable and available housing is in a desperate shortage,” he said.
The congregants interested in financially backing an effort to provide housing believe churches and other nonprofits could perhaps have more flexibility than a traditional developer.
Social service organizations in Astoria have noted a need for low-cost housing as clients transition from a life on the streets or after weathering other setbacks. Van Nostran knows of people who slept at the warming center during the winter and worked during the day. They struggled to save up enough money to afford rising rents or cover the upfront costs of moving into an apartment.
“These are working people who can’t afford to live where they work,” Van Nostran said.
Business owners at the homelessness solutions task force meetings discussed difficulties in hiring staff because people could not find affordable places to live.
Van Nostran believes all of these groups could be served by the kind of housing project church congregants and the advisory committee envision.