Jamie Lusch/Mail Tribune Medford City Council Member Chad Miller, left, and Fortify Holdings Chairman Ziad Elsahili view a unit at the Jackson, a new apartment complex that was previously Americas Best Value Inn.
Fire survivors on the front line to get apartments
A run-down motel in downtown Medford has been transformed into 84 much-needed studio apartments.
Survivors of the destructive 2020 Rogue Valley fires that destroyed 2,500 homes are on the front line for apartments. Some people started moving in this week.
Portland-based Fortify Holdings has teamed up with local nonprofit groups and government agencies to gut the hotel interior and create sleek apartments. Each apartment has an open floor plan with a bedroom, living area, and kitchenette, plus a large separate bathroom.
Photo courtesy of Oregon Department of Social Services The Americas Best Value Inn in Medford has been gutted and renovated to provide studio apartments.
The former Americas Best Value Inn on Riverside Avenue is reborn as The Jackson apartment complex.
Fortify Holdings owns three other Medford motels where fire survivors are staying. These motels will gradually be converted into apartments that will provide transitional and permanent residences with more features than a traditional motel room.
“What happened at Medford is so unique, it was truly a highlight of my career,” said Fortify Holdings founder and investor Sean Keys. “Helping families through their crucial time of need has been incredibly satisfying to watch.”
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, particularly its dearth of affordable housing. With large, new hotels sprouting up on the outskirts of cities, especially around Interstate 5 interchanges, nearly every community has run-down motels in their cores.
“The only way to affect the cost of housing is to have more housing,” Keys said.
He said Fortify Holdings had other motel conversion projects in the country and was doing about half of them without help from government agencies.
Keys said developers should expect older motels to have hidden and expensive damage that needs to be repaired.
Developers must ensure that zoning rules allow a motel to be converted into housing. Fortunately, commercial zoning often allows apartments as well as businesses, Keys said.
Motel rooms need to be brought up to code to meet apartment standards. For example, Fortify Holdings has added safety upgrades such as sprinklers to bring apartments into compliance with fire codes, said Ziad Elsahili, president of Fortify Holdings.
Keys said the city of Medford offered advice to Fortify Holdings to make sure the project followed the rules and didn’t hit any snags.
“The City of Medford has been fantastic in helping us expedite this project so we can provide housing,” Keys said.
The Americas Best Value Inn in Medford has been transformed into an apartment complex with studios. [Photo courtesy of Oregon Department of Human Services]
Developers must ensure that the projects will be realized.
“The rising cost of materials and labor is currently a challenge for any construction project,” Elsahili said.
But he said motel conversions are worthwhile projects.
“I think the private sector could and should support them. You are bringing to market housing that is really needed, and you are doing it with existing infrastructure,” Elsahili said.
Fortify Holdings plans to provide 500 apartments once the conversion of the four Medford motels it owns is complete.
Even before the 2020 fires destroyed thousands of homes in Rogue Valley, primarily in Phoenix and Talent, the area was facing a housing crisis.
Jackson County needed 7,400 more rental units to meet demand before the fires, Oregon Housing and Community Services Director Caleb Yant said.
Then an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 people were displaced when the Almeda fire in 2020 torched trailers and parks of prefabricated houses, apartments and entire neighborhoods.
Many have found other places to stay while Rogue Valley is being rebuilt, including RVs and trailers provided by a mix of government agencies and nonprofit groups.
Hundreds stay in motels that weren’t designed for long-term living. The State of Oregon paid for their accommodation and meals.
When Ed Flick first arrived in Rogue Valley and saw the destruction left by the 2020 fires, he wondered how the state could ever find solutions. He is director of the Oregon Office of Resilience and Emergency Management.
“Housing was already scarce,” Flick said.
He said public, private and non-profit partnerships are what made the motel conversion project possible.
“I know the government can’t do it alone,” Flick said.
Fortify Holdings owns the Medford motels, and local nonprofit Rogue Community Health stepped in to lease the properties and rent the apartments to tenants. The non-profit organization’s primary mission is to provide accessible and affordable health care to people regardless of their ability to pay.
Rogue Community Health has been helping survivors since fleeing the fires and seeking emergency shelter at the Jackson County Expo in Central Point.
“It became apparent that we didn’t have transitional housing,” said William North, executive director of Rogue Community Health.
North said the motel conversion project is an opportunity to address issues like housing that have big impacts on people’s health.
Keys, the founder of Fortify Holdings, said Rogue Community Health is a great partner for the motel conversion project.
“One of our missions is to transform lives, and this project will provide 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 suffered from 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 these issues. Rogue Community Health is here to support them,” she said.
Marsh said the converted motel rooms won’t work for large families, but provide accommodation for singles, couples or single parents with children.
“A lot of these motels are past their peak of attraction to travelers. This model is brilliant. With limited investment, you can have housing faster than building from scratch,” Marsh said.
Rent for tenants is based on a sliding scale based on their income. The state provides rent assistance through the local nonprofit ACCESS for tenants who cannot 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 bathroom.
Fire survivors also have priority for most of these apartments. When they transition to permanent housing, Rogue Retreat will use the apartments to provide transitional housing for people fleeing homelessness.
Wildfire survivors who still need help can call the state survivors hotline at 1-833-669-0554 or visit wildfire.oregon.gov.
Survivors of the 2020 Jackson County wildfires can reach the Community Resilience Access Center by calling 541-414-0318 or visiting accesshelps.org/ccr.
The center helps survivors find housing and connects them with partner agencies for help with transportation, health care, finances, disability services and other needs.
Contact Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.