This lot on North Oregon Street in Ontario was to hold up to 20 tiny homes to provide winter shelter for area homeless. A lawsuit filed in state court may stop the plan and leave organizers seeking a new place for the homes. (Pat Caldwell/The Enterprise)
UPDATE: This story includes links to statements by The Nichols Accounting Group and Origins Faith Community Church and a link to the lawsuit itself and a comment from Ontario City Manager Adam Brown.
ONTARIO – Plans to create temporary housing for the city’s homeless population hit a snag as an Ontario business has sued the city to stop the placement of 20 temporary homes.
The encampment was to be established in the next couple of weeks on North Oregon Street just north of downtown Ontario.
The Nichols Accounting Group, an accounting firm that operates adjacent to area designated for the tiny homes, sued the city, Origins Faith Community Church and Community in Action, seeking to enjoin their project. In a complaint filed last week in Malheur County Circuit Court, the accounting firm said the homes would violate the city’s building code and zoning.
The encampment would “cause a sanitation and health issue,” the complaint said.
Doug Lamm, a certified public accountant with Nichols, said Tuesday afternoon that safety of the firm’s employees is also an issue.
“The first thing we said to the city was about our safety going forward. To a person, if you go around an talk to our ladies, they are frightened,” said Lamm.
Lamm said the city and other local groups working to create the temporary housing didn’t communicate with the firm.
“They didn’t keep us in the loop,” said Lamm.
Lamm said he felt the city, Origins Faith Community Church and Community in Action are “good people with good intentions.”
“And there is a need and we acknowledge that. But if they can’t get any more organized in the time they had to do it how well are they going to organize something that sites a few feet from our office,” said Lamm.
Lamm the firm finds itself in a corner as its busiest time of the year.
“We really didn’t want to file this. But we need to have it done fast because January comes every winter and we have to get a lot of work done,” he said.
DOCUMENT: Nichols Accounting Group statement
The lawsuit comes as officials were executing a plan to install the tiny homes between Northeast Third Avenue and Fourth Avenues on the east side of North Oregon Street. The tiny home project is being orchestrated by the city, Community in Action and Origins Faith Community Church.
The church released a statement saying the lawsuit was harmful to the community and that it would unnecessarily unnecessary delay helping some of the most vulnerable in the community.
“It seems like there is a lot of fear based on the assumption of all the things that could go wrong. Why can’t we instead operate under the assumption of all the things that could go right? We don’t have to determine this is a failure before it even gets off the ground,” said the statement issued by James Vogt, pastor at Origins Faith Community.
Vogt added that there were plans in place to ensure that the tiny home project would have minimal impact on the neighborhood.
Vogt said Tuesday morning he was not aware of the lawsuit until an Enterprise reporter called him seeking comment.
DOCUMENT: Origins Faith Community statement
Officials from Community in Action didn’t respond to messages Tuesday seeking comment.
Community in Action recently contracted with Conley’s Mini Barns to buy 20 small structures using a $150,000 state grant, according to Executive Director Barb Higinbotham in an interview last week before the suit was filed.
The homes are 8-by-10 feet and basic, said Higinbotham.
“They will have insulation and heat and lights and electricity and a cot,” said Higinbotham.
Portable toilets would service the camp, she said.
Higinbotham said one other small cottage would be installed at the North Oregon Street for a manager of the facility. Origins Faith Community Church will provide that staff.
Adam Brown, Ontario city manager, said he late Tuesday the city will follow through on the court process regarding the lawsuit.
"I don't know if there is anything to say right now," said Brown.
In its lawsuit, Nichols Accounting and a second company, North Oregon Properties LLC, said Ontario’s city code required every dwelling to have a kitchen sink and a bathroom with a shower or bath tub and that the dwelling be connected to a water supply.
Nichols said using portable toilets could result in “improperly treated human sewage” and could cause “irreparable health issues” for the firm’s employees and clients. Nichols’ office is as 230 N. Oregon St.
The complaint also said that the encampment violated the industrial zoning restrictions on the property. Nichols said residential uses aren’t allowed in such a zone.
As of Tuesday, no hearing had been set on the lawsuit’s request for an injunction.
The tiny homes, though, will be only a temporary fix. That’s because, Higinbotham said, the project will end in April and the facility will be shut down.
“We won’t provide winter shelter at that point,” said Higinbotham.
The project unfolded as community leaders struggled to find housing for homeless in Ontario, numbering from 170 to 200.
Higinbotham said after the project closes, officials will “take several months to evaluate it and then we will decide to go for additional funding or not.”
“We will be looking at things like did the location work? Was it safe? Was it easy to manage?” said Higinbotham.
Ontario City Manager Adam Brown said there were no easy solutions.
“I don’t think there are good, clean answers. These things are created from challenges in life that don’t have answers,” said Brown.
He said, though, while the tiny homes project won’t solve the homeless issue, it will make a difference.
“I am comfortable trying this and I think we need to try it because we know what nothing looks like. But we don’t know what something looks like,” said Brown.
City Councilor Norm Crume said after the first 20 tiny homes are in place, he isn’t sure what the next step will be.
“I believe there will be a next step because I think it (the tiny home project) will get bigger and bigger,” said Crume.
That means, said, Crume, that city leaders must tackle the homeless issue.
“It will take some serious discussion as to what we are capable of doing, what we are willing to do and what we are forced to do. I think that every city is struggling with this because there are really no good options,” said Crume.
Crume also said the whole community should be involved in the effort to solve the homeless issue.
“My mind is open to listen to any and all ideas. The only answer anyone ever gives is not in my backyard and that just isn’t going to work,” said Crume.
Reporters Yadira Lopez and Joe Siess contributed to this report.
News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.
OUR PREVIOUS COVERAGE: HOMELESSNESS:
There's a total of 276 students in kindergarten to high school who are considered homeless in Malheur County. Interviews with staff at area school districts have revealed what student homelessness looks like, what causes it, and what is being done to help.
As the city and local groups work to install 20 tiny homes to help ease homelessness in Ontario, the city's homeless talk of finding shelter anywhere they can during the winter months.
Last week the Ontario City Council approved a revised license agreement to allow 8-by-10 feet tiny homes for the homeless to be installed in the city. The project will be funded through a state grant.
The city of Ontario is joining forces with local organizations to help bring shelter for the area's homeless population. The latest idea will place 15 to 20 tiny homes between Northeast 3rd Avenue and Northeast 4th Avenue off North Oregon Street.
Ontario City Manager Adam Brown said Community in Action would use $150,000 from the state, allocated to address the city's homeless problem, to buy tiny homes while the city will look for a site for the homes. He believes the city could have enough money to buy 20.
Homelessness is one of the most vexing issues facing any community. Ontario is no exception. Make it your affair to learn, donate and volunteer to help mitigate this issue in Malheur County.
The New Hope Day Shelter in Ontario will host a grand opening Wednesday, Nov. 13. The site inside Origins Faith Community, an Ontario church, 312 N.W. 2nd St., has been months in the making, and will offer homeless community members respite from the elements as well as access to a shower, computers and a phone.
The New Hope Day Shelter soon to open at Origins Faith Community will offer folks without a home some respite from the elements and access to a shower, laundry and other resources to help them get back on their feet.
The clearout of a homeless camp by the Snake River north of Ontario last week brought homelessness to the fore. Some of the folks displaced in that clearout shared their plight. A common thread ran through their stories: they want a hand up, not a handout.
The operation, which involved clearing out a homeless camp in Ontario took place on Monday, Oct. 14, and was announced a week ahead of time to give the homeless campers warning. The sweep and clear effort was triggered by two break-ins at a water well structure and worries that the city’s water could be contaminated.
Employees from the Department of Human Services visited a meal site at the New Hope Day Shelter inside Origins Faith Community, an Ontario church, Wednesday to let people know about resources. This story includes ways you can help the homeless cause in Ontario.
PHOTOS: The city of Ontario on Monday, Oct. 14, displaced a number of homeless people living in the woods along the river north of the city's water treatment plant after initiating a cleanup procedure. The procedure was sparked by concern that the water system could become contaminated after someone broke into a building housing a city well.
A potential breach of Ontario's drinking water system triggered a move Monday to eliminate a homeless camp. City and state workers used heavy equipment to clear an area along the Snake River.