November 9, 2017

Ken Wilson, Sherry Swackhamer and Ken Elliott of Multnomah County talk about the agreement to sell the Wapato jail site.
Twelve years after the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners first voted to find a new owner or use for the Wapato Detention Facility, the current Board approved a purchase and sales agreement to sell the property for $10.8 million -- and dedicate the proceeds to affordable housing.

The resolution, approved 4-1, declares the property surplus and gives Kehoe Northwest Properties, LLC, of Portland two days to put down $200,000 earnest money, and $300,000 by Jan. 8., 2018. The county and Kehoe Northwest Properties now have 60 days to complete the deal, with an option to extend that period 30 days. Wapato was appraised as an industrial building for $8.5 million in 2014.

“This is a lot better than letting the building sit vacant, gobbling up operating dollars that can be spent on truly needed priorities like housing and mental health services,” Chair Deborah Kafoury said. “We can’t change the fact that decades ago Multnomah County made a terrible mistake and built a jail we don’t need. But what we can do is ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

But the Board went even further. In a 5-0 vote, commissioners directed all proceeds from the sale to support a pledge to add deeply affordable housing with wraparound services attached. The county, the city of Portland and Home Forward all committed this fall to work with community partners to create 2,000 new units of supportive housing over the next 10 years.

Commissioner Lori Stegmann sponsored a resolution to invest Wapato proceeds into affordable supportive housing.
Commissioner Lori Stegmann, who supported the sale and sponsored the resolution directing Wapato proceeds, said it’s important to focus precious county resources on long-term priorities that can address the region’s homelessness crisis.

“This crisis is fueled by a lack of quality, stable affordable housing options,” she said. “By addressing the root causes of our housing crisis, we move one step closer to solving homelessness.”

"No money to operate the facility"

Wapato won approval from 55 percent of Multnomah County voters in 1995, but was not completed until July 2004. Anti-tax initiatives passed by voters at virtually the same time the jail was approved eliminated any funding stream to operate it. The Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, unable to afford the $10 million to $20 million needed to run a 525-bed jail, recommended mothballing it.

At the time, then-Sheriff Bernie Giusto acknowledged he took office inheriting a jail the Sheriff’s Office could not afford to operate. He estimated it would take up to $10 million a year to house inmates and pay employees, but just $300,000 to keep the facility closed. A series of Boards and Sheriffs spent the next decade trying to find another use or tenant.

“There was not only no money to operate the facility,” Assistant County Attorney Ken Elliott said during the hearing, “but there were no prisoners to fill all of the available beds.”

Because the jail was built with tax-exempt bonds, the county could not sell to a private owner until county bonds were paid off, on Oct. 1, 2016, and state bonds that contributed to construction costs reached a permissible level.

In 2013, the Oregon Legislature approved a measure to allow the county to issue a long-term lease to a private entity. In 2014, in anticipation of the bonds maturing, the county issued a request for interest to repurpose and sell Wapato.

Chair Kafoury, in her 2015 State of the County address, reiterated that Wapato was for lease or sale. The county continued to meet with state officials, including the Governor's Office, to shop the property. Despite the efforts, no viable offers resulted.

Finally in February, the current board under Chair Kafoury, authorized marketing the jail. Multnomah County announced in August that it had selected CBRE Real Estate Services in Portland to exclusively market Wapato as part of a larger contract to lease or sell surplus county properties.

The county received six proposals by an Oct. 20 deadline, with one withdrawn immediately. Of the five bidders remaining, only two chose to submit “best and final” offers. Of those, county officials chose Kehoe.

Commissioner Loretta Smith urged the board to try to open Wapato as a temporary homeless shelter.
Site's challenges as a shelter

The decision to proceed wasn’t unanimous. Commissioner Loretta Smith opposed the agreement and joined several community members in urging the Board to instead explore opening Wapato as a shelter or homelessness services center.

Land use restrictions by the city of Portland and the state, as well as deed restrictions by the Port of Portland, currently prohibit using Wapato as a homeless shelter. The state Land Use Board of Appeals clarified that restriction on opening shelters in industrial areas last year. The appeals board ruled against Portland’s plan to move Right 2 Dream Too to an industrial plot in the Central Eastside.

"I don't consider Wapato an albatross or a white elephant. I consider it an opportunity facility," Smith said, "an opportunity to help folks who are homeless get off our streets."

Architect Stuart Emmons also urged the Board to consider refusing the sale in favor of a shelter for people experiencing homelessness.

“Find us a similar facility for 525 people,” he said. “If you can’t figure out how to make Wapato into a shelter, then sell it to a group that can figure it out. Or use it temporarily.”

Opening Wapato for a use other than a jail would cost an estimated $950,000 and an ongoing $140,000 in utilities a month. This includes ensuring working lights, plumbing, heating and Internet services, in addition to ongoing maintenance and the expectation that, over time, outdated systems would need to be replaced as they fail.

Other issues include poor to no cell service at the site and difficult access for people with disabilities. Wapato is also 11 miles from downtown Portland and 22 miles from Gresham, and far from transit, stores and services. Advocates and service providers have warned that people may not come to a shelter that’s too isolated.

"It's a monument to a lot of mistakes"

“Sell it. It isn’t a homeless shelter, it isn’t a magic bullet,” said former Commissioner Judy Shiprack, speaking as a member of the public. “It’s a monument to a lot of mistakes that were made back in the day. It will never spark joy. Get rid of it.”

Chair Deborah Kafoury speaks during a hearing on approving an agreement to sell Wapato.
Ernesto Fonseca, chief executive of Hacienda CDC, a nonprofit that provides affordable housing, supported the sale agreement.

“The location of the jail is not suitable,” he said. “It’s not about zoning or ordinances. It’s about visibility for these people. Anybody that knows a little bit about homelessness, they know it’s about systems, community and a series of networks where they are living. They won’t be attending or going to this facility.”

Commissioners Sharon Meieran and Jessica Vega Pederson also supported the agreement to sell Wapato to Kehoe Northwest.

Commissioner Meieran said she also once thought a shelter at Wapato would be humane and cost effective. Now, she says, opening a shelter there would starve funding for the hundreds of beds already helping people closer to services, while costing the county a chance to spend money on housing that ends homelessness.

“As I learned more and more about Wapato,” she said, “I found there were a web of challenges that simply made it unfeasible to open Wapato as a shelter or any other function for the county. It doesn’t make either financial or human sense.”

Commissioner Vega Pederson shared others’ concerns about the location’s isolation and expense as a shelter.

But the debate, she said, “really shows the passion and caring our community has, realizing the importance of the issue of affordable housing and addressing homelessness. We all see it and we want to do what we can to work in the issue. But we all have different perspectives.”

But the bottom line, after years of trying to cast off what many called the “albatross” of an unused jail?

“We have a viable, above-market offer,” Vega Pederson said, “that puts this facility back on the tax rolls.”