Vancouver VA campus considered for housing

From The Oregonian, August 19, 2011

The Portland VA Medical Center wants to do its part to end homelessness among veterans. It’s looking to lease up to two acres on its Vancouver campus to an affordable-housing developer to build permanent residences for veterans, one of the biggest subpopulations of the region’s homeless.

Eileen Devine, VISN 20 Network Homeless Coordinator, stands in the proposed location of a complex for homeless veterans.

Eileen Devine, VISN 20 Network Homeless Coordinator, stands in the proposed location of a complex for homeless veterans.

Social-service providers and affordable-housing developers at a public hearing last week at the Vancouver campus applauded the goal but expressed concern about the financial feasibility of the project. The VA will not contribute to construction or operational costs.

“Usually, the land is not enough,” said Craig Lyons, executive director of the Council for the Homeless. “It takes a fair amount of funding mixes to put together a project like this.”

“You still have to be able to turn the lights on,” said Leah Greenwood, executive director of the community developer Affordable Community Environment. “Are there enough deep subsidies available locally to provide units for homeless veterans? That is going to be the biggest challenge.”

Homeless activists questioned VA officials during the hearing about whether rent subsidies, Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) vouchers — rent subsidies available exclusively to homeless and low-income veterans — and other incentives would be provided to lessen the cost of building and operating affordable housing. At this point, no firm answers were forthcoming.

Housing need is great

This much everyone at the hearing could agree on: The need for housing is acute.

According to a one-night count taken in January, approximately 550 homeless adults live in Clark County. Ninety-five identify as veterans, or 17 percent. “Veterans are overrepresented in the homeless population,” said Eileen Divine, a homeless coordinator with the VA.

Veterans, Divine said, are at high risk of becoming homeless. “They have experiences from being a veteran that present them with different challenges.”

Those challenges include post-traumatic stress disorder, which can cause mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety and can lead them to substance and drug abuse. Veterans often have a difficult time securing a job and re-acclimating to civilian life.

The VA is leasing the land as part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Building Utilization Review and Repurposing (BURR) program, which identifies vacant land on VA medical campuses that can be used to construct buildings and develop services designed to end veteran homelessness. The VA is authorized to lease land for up to 75 years to private or public agencies.

The Vancouver VA campus is one of 34 sites across the country selected as suitable to participate in the BURR program. (Portland’s main VA campus, located next to Oregon Health & Science University, was not selected because it does not have land to spare).

Because the Vancouver campus is part of the Portland VA Medical Center, it’s possible that veterans currently located in Portland could live in the housing. “We have been working with veterans on both sides of the river,” Divine said. “They do consider one side or the other their home. They don’t have a lot of interest in moving to the other side.”

Location of property

The Vancouver VA campus is located along busy Fourth Plain Boulevard, and the proposed housing site is a piece of unimproved land bordered by Fourth Plain Boulevard on the north, Central Avenue on the east, and A Street on the south.

Some housing advocates say the VA may end up having to pick another piece of land on the Vancouver campus.

“There’s going to be some real design challenges,” said Kelli Emery, project manger in the VA office of asset enterprise management. “It’s a small lot. It’s a busy corner right there. There’s a lot of people that’ll be wandering through that little section of the property getting off the bus.” He said there are two other sites that can be considered.

Emery emphasized during the public hearing that nothing has yet been determined regarding how many units the development will have, whether it will serve homeless veterans with no income, or whether the building would have mixed residential and commercial uses.

Since the VA will not contribute to operational costs, Lyons said a commitment from the VA to provide support services would make the project more attractive to developers. “It would be nice for them to say that,” he said. “It seems like it’s inferred. The services are right there (on the campus).”

No members of the general public attended Tuesday’s public hearing. No neighborhood-level concerns were expressed about a low-income building being built in the area. Public comment is being accepted until August 16.

The next step, Emery said, is to open a competitive process to select a developer for the site. She said no firm timeline is in place.