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ZERO SUM GAIN?

PORTLAND - When a new affordable housing project is proposed often opponents will describe it as a zero-sum game - some people will win, but other people - you, me and others who already live here - will lose.

Not true.

Consider a block in Buckman, a neighborhood just east across the Willamette River from downtown Portland, Oregon. In 2015 Governing magazine ranked Portland the nation's most rapidly-gentrifying city. It started in The Pearl, formerly a warehouse district north of downtown, moved to North/Northeast and is sparking escalating rents and breakneck building in neighborhoods like Buckman.

The one-acre block on - "a rare block of outdoor space," said the City's Design Review Commission - owned by the Parish of St. Francis of Assis Catholic Church. For decades, said The Catholic Sentinel, it "served as a neighborhood gathering place."

In August, 2014 the Parish said it would sell the parcel for "just shy of" $2 million to Catholic Charities of Oregon. Established in 1876, explained pastoral administrator Valerie Chapman, the proceeds would bring some buildings that "have been here almost that long. . . up to a better state,"

With Home Forward, the city's housing authority as developer, Catholic Charities planned to transform the site into 106 units of affordable housing with funding from the City, HUD and Federal low-income housing tax credits that generate capital from private investors.

Seventy-seven of its studio and one-bedroom units would be for very low-income families earning 60 percent and 19 for families at 30 percent or less of Portland's median income. Twenty are for "women transitioning from homelessness and five for women escaping domestic or sexual violence." It's housing for people "who staff the shops, the restaurants and coffee bars," Ms. Chapman explained, "people who have retired on low incomes, people who are just starting out, those re-entering the job market and others who haven't yet reached their earning potential or who just need a little more help."

Not everyone cheered. "How could they even consider tearing this park down" asked one neighborhood resident. "It's definitely notable to lose open space," another told The Oregonian. "Anybody would be sad to see that go when you have massive amounts of development taking place."

"Development" that, in fact, caused the Parish to sell. "I know people love the park. I love the park. But as time goes on, things change," Chapman told The Oregonian. "We're feeling really good about the sale; [the project] is going to be something we care about, not just market rate housing at the max price," she added with The Catholic Sentinel.

 

But look at the footprint of the now-completed complex. About half is housing. The other half is a landscaped courtyard with a community garden. Even better, the City vacated a block of Oak Street between the complex and Church. Now it's car-less, open only to pedestrians bicyclists and folks who want to sit and talk with friends. No park, but plenty of open, green space remains.

"There's lots of market-rate housing going-in in central Portland," said April O'Neill at the May, 2017 grand opening of St. Francis Park Apartments. "It's nice to balance that out with some affordable housing." Portland could use lots more.

A recent HUD report found that, in 2015, some 56,000 Portland households paid more than 50 percent of their monthly income to rent, lived in substandard housing or both. No wonder. Like many other American cities, in Portland the supply of affordable housing lags far behind demand.

That's why HUD Secretary Carson wants HUD to be more "business-like" in encouraging the private sector to build affordable housing. With almost half its funding from private sources, St. Francis Park Apartments offers a textbook example of doing precisely that.

It also is a textbook example of affordable housing at its best, Designed and developed to welcome new, but protect long-time residents of Buckman. To fit in, not stand out. To be a part of, not separate from the larger neighborhood. To not be a neighborhood just for rich people or just for poor people, but for all people. To be a positive-sum gain, not a zero-sum game.

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