Euvalcree, nonprofit community organization (Rachel Parsons/The Enterprise)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated from the version in the print edition, which went to press before these developments.

ONTARIO – An ambitious $3.5 million plan to convert the Red Lion Inn & Suites in Ontario into affordable housing fell into place at the last minute Tuesday after Ontario’s city council voted to support the project.

EUVALCREE, a community-based non-profit organization in Ontario, is in line to get a state grant to expand transitional housing in the city. One crucial condition was support from the Ontario City Council by Monday. That didn’t happen, but organization got an extension from the Oregon Community Foundation, which administers the grant, until after Tuesday night’s city council meeting.

“I’m appreciative that the city council was able to be responsive and understanding of the impending deadline, as well as of the situation,” said Gustavo Morales, executive director of EUVALCREE.

Morales said his organization had been in touch since March with City Manager Adam Brown, Assistant City Manager Peter Hall, and Community Development Director Dan Cummings about the project. However, it wasn’t until June 3 that Norma Ramirez, EUVALCREE programs manager, pitched the organization’s plan to city councilors and asked for a letter of support. Without the letter, the project couldn’t have moved forward. That very nearly became the case as some councilors balked at the last-minute request.

Ramirez explained in her presentation that EUVALCREE would acquire a motel or hotel and turn it into a shelter, transitional or affordable housing. 

The acquisition and conversion will be funded entirely through state funds apportioned to the Oregon Community Foundation through Project Turnkey, a new initiative which has so far propelled 15 similar projects throughout the state. No city funds will be required.

The shelter will serve “families in self-sufficiency programs who are unable to get into permanent housing because of the housing shortage...the 300 foster children and state-appointed guardians in Malheur County who have been removed from their current environments and are between homes, and victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking,” Ramirez said. 

Recent Oregon legislation which took effect in May aids in acquiring and converting a motel property. 

HB 3261 requires local governments to allow the conversion of hotels and motels to emergency shelters or affordable housing. 

Hotels and motels that are converted into emergency shelters then enjoy the protections of HB 2006, which “requires local governments to approve a qualified application for the development or use of land for an emergency shelter, notwithstanding local land use regulations, zoning ordinances, comprehensive or other locally adopted plans,” according to a legislative summary.

HB 2006 provided the conditions by which Ontario’s single overnight homeless shelter, the tiny homes installed alongside Origins Faith Community, was allowed to stay open after the city council voted to close it for the season. 

At the June 3 council meeting, Mayor Riley Hill pointed out that without knowing the site proposed for the shelter, it would be difficult for the city to comment. 

“I don’t think the council can give a letter of support till we have more details about the project and the program,” he said. 

Councilor Eddie Melendrez concurred, but said that in the abstract, he supported the project. 

“I’m all for any more housing for people that need it, so as of right now, I like what you’re saying,” he said. “I feel like this could be something like that it could be something we look back on and say, ‘Wow, we’re helping a lot of people.’”

Councilor John Kirby was more skeptical. 

“The state is allowing your organization to come to our community to take over a property that produces income and is in the middle of a retail center, and change the nature of that center without our citizen input, and that is wrong,” Kirby said to Ramirez. 

Ramirez said the goal was to operate the facility “in the most casual, incognito and convenient way to reduce all if any effect it may have on the commercial components of the area while providing a safe environment for the impacted vulnerable communities so that they may lead normal productive lives.”

Morales emphasized that those housed in the shelter would be contributing economically to Ontario themselves, and could better do so with the shelter’s help. He said that he understood that the community would “always strive for economic opportunity and vitality.”

Acknowledging Kirby’s concerns, Morales and his staff later made a last-ditch effort to buy another motel situated at a more comfortable distance from Ontario’s business center.

In a June 7 email, however, Megan Loeb, program officer for the Oregon Community Foundation, said that “it is unlikely at this point that our CFO will approve due diligence (for) a second property without adequate time left in our grant window.”

On Tuesday morning, Morales appeared to concede the defeat of the project in an email to city councilors.

However, in the city council meeting that evening, Morales appeared via Zoom to present the project again. This time, he was successful. After much discussion, the city council, absent Melendrez, unanimously approved a letter of support for the Red Lion location, with the condition that Euvalcree comply with local zoning and planning guidelines.

The councilors also want the group to conduct its own hearing to receive public feedback on the shelter initiative.

Morales said that according to surveys Euvalcree conducted of surrounding businesses, the shelter project enjoys wide support. That’s because it takes 63 high-quality rooms off the hotel market, leaving more space for other nearby hotels and motels to expand their clientele.

Now, 60 of those rooms will now be converted for shelter use, with three converted to office space.

“If all goes well and we’re able to close before the end of this month, we hope to take all of July to get it operational, and then open in August,” Morales said.

News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577. 

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