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News / Clark County News

Clark Asks: Why abandoned buildings can’t be used to house people experiencing homelessness? It’s complicated

By Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter, and
Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter
Published: February 12, 2024, 2:29pm

Can’t some of the abandoned or under-used buildings in Clark County be used for shelters or affordable housing? That’s a question many readers have submitted to The Columbian through the Clark Asks portal on our website.

It seems like a simple solution: Here are four walls and a roof not being used in the midst of a housing and homelessness crisis.

However, converting vacant buildings into housing — especially into affordable units — often involves navigating complex zoning regulations, building codes and property laws.

Clark County needs to build an anticipated 100,000 homes by 2044 to meet statewide targets, so it seems like using existing buildings could help fill the gap.

But only once has Vancouver Housing Authority converted a building not previously used for housing into a shelter — Bertha’s Place near Vancouver Mall. It was built as a hotel.

Victor Caesar, chief real estate officer at the Vancouver Housing Authority, said at face value, it makes sense that buildings no one is using should be used for housing. But being empty isn’t the only criteria housing authorities have to examine in these scenarios, he said.

A building’s condition, location, structure, zoning and ownership has to fall into place before considering a transformation. And if those factors don’t line up, it can be expensive to convert a building into housing.

“It’s probably easier to just buy existing housing,” he said.

Proximity to resources is especially important to consider when housing people experiencing homelessness, Caesar said.

When Larch Corrections Center in Yacolt closed its doors late last fall, residents asked The Columbian whether it could be a new housing solution for the homeless. Caesar said, in his opinion, the facility is too far from services and transit lines. By road, Larch is nearly 17 miles from Battle Ground and more than 12 miles from Yacolt.

Other communities have used office buildings and vacant warehouses for housing since the rise of remote work, but making those units habitable can be costly and time-consuming.

“It’s probably more of a market-rate option than an affordable one,” Caesar said.

State funding key

Public funds can make it possible to turn these buildings into affordable housing or shelter. Oregon has been using state funds for three years, turning dozens of under-used or abandoned buildings into shelter.

The state launched Project Turnkey in 2020, converting 32 properties into short- and long-term housing with the help of state funding and the local nonprofits that operate them.

The transformations aren’t novel, but the level of state funding that made them successful is — around $125 million.

“The state provided acquisition for each of the sites so that they are owned debt-free,” said Oregon Community Foundation program officer Megan Loeb, who led the administration of Project Turnkey. “That one time opportunity to have an asset like that is critical.”

But Washington has a different idea to influence more developers to transform buildings into housing.

Washington lawmakers are considering a bill that would give financial breaks for developers who convert commercial buildings into multifamily complexes.

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Senate Bill 6175 and its companion bill, HB 2308, would encourage developers to create buildings — with at least one-fifth of the units affordable — for property tax exemptions.

“With this massive need, why not harness the existing resources that our communities already have?” Loeb said.

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.