Our silent builders

By Robert Landauer – editorial columnist for The Oregonian, November 25, 1997. Not available elsewhere online.

Cooperation helps communities thrive but gets fewer headlines than controversy. The goodwill, grit and ingenuity of public officials, nonprofit agencies, foundations, companies, unions and citizen volunteers have turned eyesores here into assets.

Item: The Housing Authority of Portland has built six special-needs group homes throughout Multnomah County and is developing a seventh. Each has five bedrooms with bathroom. The residents share a common kitchen, living room and dining room.

Different service agencies run the programs at each house. The Garlington Center and the Southeast Mental Health Network, for example, run programs for residents with mental -health disabilities. Network Behavioral Care runs a house for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Other programs are geared for persons with physical disabilities. All residents are capable of supervised independent living under conditions of case-manager contact and 24-hour emergency support.

Item: Providence Portland Medical Center built a 42-unit housing facility and adult day-health center, ElderPlace, at 5641 N.E. Alberta St. This center, along with companion facilities elsewhere, offers 413 low-income elderly Portlanders comprehensive health care and meals.

Item: The Sabin Community Development Corporation built a four-bedroom house on a vacant lot at Northeast 10th and Failing. A single-parent family earning less than 60 percent of regional median family income and ineligible for a traditional mortgage leases the home. Each month part of the rent is put aside to apply to a downpayment. The family is on track to buy the house in three to five years for $61,000, less than half the market rate, and can assume the nonprofit agency’s 6 percent mortgage.

At Northeast 15th and Alberta, Sabin took over an abandoned store that had decayed into a drug addicts’ shooting gallery and lair of a neighborhood stalker. It is building 11 rental units (four of them wheelchair-accessible) and a new office for itself.

Item: Northeast Community Development Corporation has converted 128 Boise, King, Vernon and Humboldt neighborhood properties into 170 units of duplexes, row houses and single-family houses for first-time low-income buyers.

All of these projects revitalize neighborhoods, reduce homelessness and cut down student turnover at schools. Virtually all have clauses to keep every home affordable to low-income families for the long haul.

The major common ingredient, though, is that Multnomah County’s donation of tax-foreclosed properties makes the projects possible. The inspiration for that generosity was that a federal affordable-housing grant of $3.75 million in 1991 to the Northeast Community Development Corp. required a local match. The county persuaded the Legislature to allow tax-foreclosed properties to be donated for public purposes and then committed 130 properties to the Nehemiah project to make the match.

“At the same time we wanted competition among nonprofits to assure fair disposition of the resource and to get the best bang for the community,” says H.C. Tupper, housing development specialist for the county. The result is the Affordable Housing Development Program, which has conveyed an additional 95 properties to nonprofit sponsors of affordable housing since 1992.

The no-cost land donation is just the start. It takes a legion of collaborators to produce price breaks big enough to get low-income families into these homes. We are talking about foundation grants, building fee waivers, assessment freezes, lien forgiveness, county enterprise zone subsidies, low-interest mortgages from the Portland Home Ownership Program and loans or grants from the Portland Development Commission, the state’s Housing Trust Fund and the federal Heinz Neighborhood Development Program, plus aid from thousands of individual and corporate contributors.

VISTA volunteers and people who choose alternative community service instead of jail time, college departments and professionals who donate expertise and ordinary citizens who offer elbow grease — these and many more join to drive down the cost of the houses and make them affordable.

In a week during which we reflect on giving thanks, we can be grateful for a trait that often ennobles this community — the habit of cooperation.