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Neighbors push back against veterans housing project

While a 16-unit residential facility at the corner of South Columbus and Stewart avenues in Medford would provide needed housing for homeless veterans, neighbors say the project could pose concerns for the residential area, nearby South Medford High and pedestrian traffic.

A continued public hearing at the city’s Site Plan and Architectural Commission (SPAC) on Friday will review the proposal by Columbia Care Services to site two multi-family apartment buildings on a 1.57 acre parcel alongside eight existing units.

The nonprofit, formerly Oregon Regional Behavioral Services, is a provider of short- and long-term residential care, short-term crisis care and long-term or transitional apartments and other types of mental health care.

Residents raised concerns about the project being described as merely apartments, citing the services provided by Columbia Care being related to mental health. Columbia Care officials said the transitional housing — with peer support — will serve clients with a range of circumstances.

Nearby homeowner Brooks Durham said he wasn’t opposed to the proposed housing for homeless or mentally ill veterans, rather he has concerns about the close proximity to a residential area and school.

Durham said the agenda is vague and gives the impression of apartments being built, not supervised residential housing potentially for homeless or mentally ill people.

“The city hasn’t been forthcoming or Columbia Care hasn’t been transparent about what the program is being offered in this housing,” he said.

“It feels really kind of under the radar. My question is, ‘Why not just let everybody know what’s going on?’ The company’s website says they want to be completely forthcoming and let neighborhoods know the projects they introduce into their community. I don’t think most of my neighbors realize what’s happening,” he said.

“This is not a regular apartment complex, rather it is transitional housing for homeless veterans with mental health issues,” Durham said, noting that attempts to ask for more information from the company received no response in nearly two weeks.

“I sent 17 detailed questions. If they were trying to be good neighbors, they’d have said, ‘Hey, we received that email, and we’ll get back to you right away.’”

Jennifer Sewitsky, communications director for Columbia Care Services, said plans for the project had been in discussion since the property was purchased in 2017 and that the intent of the housing would be to provide “affordable, supportive housing for veterans.”

The company already manages eight residential units on the site. The additional units would come with an on-site manager and community space such as a game room type area and laundry facility. Eventually, an additional 16 units could be added.

“It will be supportive housing in that it’s all going to be designated for veteran housing and have an on-site resident manager providing peer support,” she said.

“We will be supporting tenants in achieving independence. We have a real lack of affordable housing in Jackson County and across the state. Our prospective tenants could range from veterans who are just struggling to make ends meet in their current hosing situation to veterans who are at risk of becoming displaced to veterans who are currently homeless.”

Sewitsky said Columbia Care focuses on both mental health care and veteran services.

“Housing is a foundational need. Without it, the rest of life can be destabilized. This will not be a mental health treatment facility or a halfway house but supportive, affordable housing,” she said.

“What we hope we can encourage people to do is really support veterans who are needing this housing. I think it’s a really positive housing project and so much needed in the community. It will improve, if not save, lives.”

Brooks said he was hopeful that neighbors would attend the noon Friday hearing at City Hall.

“I’m not against mental health or veterans at all, I can’t imagine anyone is. I am just worried about what surrounds the property, and I don’t feel that the commission can make a good, well-informed decision without all the information,” he said.

“In the staff reports, there’s one sentence about the program and it says, ‘transitional housing for veterans.’ Tell us what kind of assistance and supervision will be happening. There’s just a high concentration of families with kids who walk to school. I just want all the information to be provided.”

Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com