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Medford motel converted into much-needed apartments

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Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Medford City Council member Chad Miller, left, and Fortify Holdings President Ziad Elsahili, check out a unit at The Jackson, a new apartment complex that was formerly Americas Best Value Inn.
Fire survivors first in line to get apartments

A run-down motel in downtown Medford has been converted into 84 much-needed studio apartments.

Survivors of the Rogue Valley’s destructive 2020 fires that destroyed 2,500 homes are first in line for the apartments. Some people started moving in this week.

The Portland-based company Fortify Holdings teamed up with local nonprofit groups and government agencies to gut the interior of the hotel and create stylish apartments. Each apartment has an open floor plan with a bedroom, sitting area and kitchenette, plus a separate full-sized bathroom.

Photo courtesy of Oregon Department of Human Services The Americas Best Value Inn in Medford was gutted and renovated to provide studio apartments.

The former Americas Best Value Inn on Riverside Avenue has been reborn as The Jackson apartment complex.

Fortify Holdings has three other Medford motels where fire survivors are staying. Those motels will gradually be converted into apartments that provide transitional and permanent homes with more features than a traditional motel room.

“What happened in Medford is so unique, it’s truly been a highlight of my career,” said Sean Keys, founder and investor in Fortify Holdings. “Helping families in their crucial time of need has been incredibly satisfying to see.”

State officials said the public/private partnership could be a model for other communities hard-hit by disasters.

Converting motels could also be a way to address Oregon’s chronic lack of housing, especially its shortage of affordable housing. With big, new hotels sprouting up on the outskirts of towns, especially around Interstate 5 interchanges, almost all communities have rundown motels in their cores.

“The only way to affect the cost of housing is with more housing,” Keys said.

He said Fortify Holdings has other motel conversion projects in the nation, and is doing about half without help from government agencies.

Keys said developers need to expect that old motels will come with some hidden, expensive damage that needs to be fixed.

Developers have to make sure zoning rules allow a motel to be converted into housing. Fortunately, commercial zoning often allows apartments as well as businesses, Keys said.

Motel rooms have to be brought up to code to meet standards for apartments. For example, Fortify Holdings added safety improvements such as sprinklers to bring the apartments into compliance with fire codes, said Ziad Elsahili, president of Fortify Holdings.

Keys said the city of Medford offered guidance to Fortify Holdings to make sure the project followed the rules and didn’t run into snags.

“The city of Medford has been fantastic about helping us fast-track this project through so we could provide housing,” Keys said.

The Americas Best Value Inn in Medford has been transformed into an apartment complex with studio apartments. [Photo courtesy of Oregon Department of Human Services]

Developers have to make sure projects will pencil out.

“The rising cost of materials and labor right now is a challenge to navigate with any construction project,” Elsahili said.

But he said motel conversions are worthwhile projects.

“I think the private sector could and should take them on. You’re bringing housing to the market that is really needed, and you’re doing it with existing infrastructure,” Elsahili said.

Fortify Holdings expects to provide 500 apartments once it’s done converting all four of the Medford motels it owns.

Even before the 2020 fires destroyed thousands of homes in the Rogue Valley, primarily in Phoenix and Talent, the area faced a housing crisis.

Jackson County needed 7,400 more rental units to meet demand before the fires, said Oregon Housing and Community Services Director Caleb Yant.

Then an estimated 6,000-8,000 people were displaced when the 2020 Almeda fire burned down trailer and manufactured home parks, apartments and entire neighborhoods.

Many have found other places to stay as the Rogue Valley rebuilds, including RVs and trailers provided by a mix of government agencies and nonprofit groups.

Hundreds remain in motels that weren’t designed for long-term living. The state of Oregon has been paying for their shelter and meals.

When Ed Flick first arrived in the Rogue Valley and saw the destruction left by the 2020 fires, he wondered how the state could ever find solutions. He’s the director of the Oregon Office of Resilience and Emergency Management.

“Housing was already in short supply,” Flick said.

He said public, private and nonprofit partnerships are what made the motel conversion project possible.

“I know that government can’t do it alone,” Flick said.

Fortify Holdings owns the Medford motels, and the local nonprofit Rogue Community Health stepped in to lease the properties and rent out the apartments to tenants. The nonprofit’s main mission is providing accessible, affordable health care to people regardless of their ability to pay.

Rogue Community Health has been helping survivors since they first fled the fires and sought emergency shelter at the Jackson County Expo in Central Point.

“It became apparent that we didn’t have transitional housing,” said Rogue Community Health Chief Executive Officer William North.

North said the motel conversion project is an opportunity to address issues like housing that have big impacts on people’s health.

Keys, the Fortify Holdings founder, said Rogue Community Health is an excellent partner for the motel conversion project.

“One of our missions is to transform lives, and this project will bring much-needed, high-quality housing and medical services to hundreds of Medford residents,” Key said.

Oregon State Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, who represents southern Jackson County, said many fire survivors are dealing with depression, trauma, a sense of loss and the financial blow of losing their homes and possessions.

“Many of our wildfire survivors are still struggling with those issues. Rogue Community Health is here to support them,” she said.

Marsh said the converted motel rooms won’t work for large families, but they provide housing for single people, couples or single parents with children.

“A lot of these motels have passed their peak of attraction for travelers. This model is brilliant. With a limited investment, you can have housing faster than building from the ground up,” Marsh said.

Rent for tenants is based on a sliding scale based on their incomes. The state is providing rent help through the local nonprofit ACCESS for tenants who can’t afford to pay market rates for their studio apartments.

Just down the road from The Jackson apartment complex on Riverside Avenue, the nonprofit Rogue Retreat and the city of Medford are partners in a project to gradually convert the 47-room Redwood Inn into apartments with kitchenettes and bathrooms.

Fire survivors have priority for most of those apartments, too. When they move on to permanent housing, Rogue Retreat will use the apartments to provide transitional housing to people escaping homelessness.

Wildfire survivors who still need help can call the state’s survivor phone line at 1-833-669-0554 or visit wildfire.oregon.gov.

Survivors of Jackson County’s 2020 wildfires can reach the ACCESS Center for Community Resilience by calling 541-414-0318 or visiting accesshelps.org/ccr.

The center helps survivors find housing and connects them to partner agencies for help with transportation, health care, finances, disability services and other needs.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.