Marion County plans to build housing in Santiam Canyon for wildfire survivors

The Oak Park Motel property in Gates, Ore. on Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Marion County officials are planning to build 32 houses in the Santiam Canyon to provide short-term shelter for people displaced by the Beachie Creek Fire last summer.

The county will use wildfire recovery funds approved during the 2021 legislative session for buying and installing the houses, which will be split across two sites – a group of cabins at North Santiam State Park and a so-called “tiny home village” in Gates, Matt Lawyer, a policy analyst for the Marion County Board of Commissioners, said at a Wednesday board meeting.

The county will work with the existing Long-Term Recovery Group, a coalition of government, nonprofit and private organizations helping to rebuild the canyon, as well as the Santiam Service Integration Team, a Santiam Hospital-led effort to connect people affected by wildfires with needed supplies and social services.

Lawyer said at the meeting that the county plans to set up 16 households – called the “Santiam Cabins” – at North Santiam State Park off Highway 22, each cabin with a master bedroom, bathroom and porch.

State prison inmates will build the 16-by-24-foot cabins through Oregon Corrections Enterprises, a state corrections department program that manufactures products for inside and outside the prison system, its website says.

Lawyer estimated the cabins will cost $2.83 million, but said the county is working with Oregon Corrections Enterprises and an engineer to lower the cost. 

The county plans to set up the tiny home village with 16 homes at the former Oak Park Motel property in Gates.

Each home will be paved to include two parking spots, and the county will develop a wastewater drain field in the property’s northeast corner.

At the board meeting, Lawyer showed a model of what the tiny homes may look like, which included a master bedroom, bathroom, space for a stackable washer and dryer, and additional space that can be used for sleeping quarters or storage. Each house would be on a chassis frame that supports it and able to be moved as necessary.

Lawyer estimated the Gates tiny homes would cost $2.2 million.

“The emphasis will be creating the housing that is affordable for wildfire survivors and the workforce within those communities,” Lawyer said. “We’re going to continue to work with state agencies in partnership to ensure the projects are viable, cost-effective and meet the needs of the survivors.”

The Marion County Housing Authority will own and operate the homes for around two to three years “with some options to extend,” Lawyer said, and the county hopes to move residents into long-term housing before taking over ownership over the homes. The North Santiam Park cabins would potentially be owned by Marion County Parks and “used as something within the park system,” he said, and the county may use the Gates tiny homes for vacation rentals at some of its parks.

Chad Ball, board policy analyst, said wildfire survivors will be able to rent them through an agreement with Marion County Housing Authority.

The county is still planning to build new long-term housing for renters and buyers in the Santiam Canyon, Lawyer said at the meeting, including apartments, townhomes, duplexes and single-family residential areas, though no concrete plans have been developed.

In addition to the federal funding Ball said the county will work with the long-term recovery group, nonprofits and other community partners on fundraising for the project. He did not identify a specific funding goal.

“We expect grant opportunities to be available,” he said in an email. “The work may also include volunteer hours or donation of materials or funding.”

Since the immediate aftermath of the Santiam Canyon fires, a nearby hotel has hosted 11 adults and four children across nine rooms, and a recreational vehicle park in Mill City has been occupied by 14 adults and six children in 12 RVs.

The Santiam Service Integration Team identified more than 300 renters as of July 8 who did not have an address and were staying at hotels or with family and friends.

The county got approval from the state on Sept. 10 to start preparing the sites, which Lawyer said will take around 17 weeks before houses can be built.

Ball said the next step in the project will be the state awarding grant money.

The county will then start hiring contractors to work at the two sites. “We will also collaborate with the SIT on identifying the households that will be able to use these temporary housing sites and continue work on long-term housing options, in order to bring wildfire survivors back to the canyon,” Ball said.

The plan presented at the meeting did not specify when housing is expected to become available for wildfire survivors.

Marion County commissioner Colm Willis said at the meeting that pleased to see new housing in the works for people who remain displaced from their homes more than a year after they lost them.

“Last week, we celebrated that over 50% of the homes that burned now have septic permits and are on their way to rebuilding,” Willis said. “But what I didn’t say, and I should have, that still means there’s about half of our folks that are still fighting to get back home. And we’re absolutely committed to walking with them and working with them and trying to do everything we can until every single one of our folks in the canyon is back home.”

 Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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