Denny West, a career public servant who helped turn the city’s attention to its most vulnerable residents through affordable housing, has died.
West, 69, died Dec. 19 at Emerson House, a home for Alzheimer’s patients, where he had been living for the last two years. He died of Parkinson’s disease, said Sue West, his wife of 45 years.
West headed the Housing Authority of Portland from 1991 until 2001. He doubled the agency’s stock of affordable housing, adding about 3,700 units, and is credited with initiating New Columbia, which replaced the Columbia Villa housing project in North Portland.
He cited his medical condition when he retired. “It’s not a serious disability now, but in time it will be,” West said then.
Former City Commissioner Mike Lindberg worked with West in the 1970s when they were both aides to Commissioner Lloyd Anderson.
“He was one of the people who basically started teaching me about city government,” Lindberg said. “Denny was an extraordinarily gifted person. He was not only intelligent, but he was able to see the big picture and the long-term.”
West had amazing interpersonal skills, Lindberg said. “In politics, we often think, ‘Let’s send somebody in to bring down the hammer,’ but it’s grace and kindness that wins the day in moving the agenda forward,” he said.
Although West lived with physical problems, “he had a great dignity about him, a kindness and gentleness in dealing with people,” Lindberg said.
Later, when Lindberg was on the City Council and West headed the housing authority, he would bring controversial projects to the council. “He was successful in bringing them to completion,” Lindberg said. “He was incredibly persistent. He never let go of the dream.”
In addition to working for Anderson and the housing authority, West served as director of development and associate vice president of research administration and economic development at Oregon Health Sciences Office of County Management in Multnomah County; and was faculty member in the Urban Studies Center at Portland State University.
He graduated with a history degree from what was then Portland State College in 1963, then earned a master’s degree in history and a doctorate in government from Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, Calif.
“Denny was one of the most important foundation builders in our community,” said Howard Shapiro,who chaired the housing authority’s board during West’s tenure.
The addition of so many housing units for lower-income residents was “a real legacy,” Shapiro said. “He started to build something that will last for 200 years, a signal that the city cared about people of all incomes.”
Kathey Shaw, a family friend, said West traveled to Africa and China after leaving the housing authority.
Shaw said she will miss West’s political advice at election time. “He knew everybody on the ballot,” she said. “I won’t know who to vote for anymore.”
In addition to his wife, West is survived by a son, John, of Bend.
A celebration of his life is scheduled for Jan. 24 in Hoffman Hall at Portland State University from 4 to 6 p.m.