Street Roots talks preserving minority affordable housing

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From the March 20 edition of Street Roots.

The housing economic forces that affect North and Northeast Portland today are rooted in changes that began decades ago. In the late 1980s, the neighborhoods suffered from economic neglect, despite having one of the most concentrated and attractive housing stocks in the city for families of all sizes. Property values languished, and one such company, Dominion Capital, seized an opportunity – illegally.

In a community that had been living with the economic abuse of redlining, Dominion took advantage of homeowners on the brink and purchased homes in what was later revealed as a fraudulent scheme that treated their customers with deception, foreclosures and evictions. The company filed for bankruptcy and its representatives were convicted of multiple charges of racketeering and fraud, leaving 354 properties swinging in the breeze of a bankruptcy court seeking assets.

But the neighborhood and civic leaders rallied to preserve the properties and their families, and Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives Inc., or PCRI, assumed control of the units. The nonprofit organization, which operates as a community development corporation to preserve, maintain and develop affordable housing, set about helping families remain in their homes, and securing the rest of the properties as permanently affordable housing.

Today, residents of North and Northeast Portland are not living under economic neglect, but rather the opposite: economic attention that has fortified gentrification and sent housing prices soaring, along with tax obligations and a widening gap between those who can and cannot continue to afford living there. The result has been an economic exodus from the area by what Maxine Fitzpatrick calls the indigenous population – the people of color who have lived in Northeast Portland for generations.

Fitzpatrick is the executive director of PCRI and has served on the Interstate Corridor Urban Renewal Advisory Committee since its inception in 2000. When the urban renewal district was established, it was expected that people would flock to the area for the benefits and then indigenous residents would be displaced – and that’s what happened, Fitzpatrick says.

In response, PCRI joined with Hacienda CDC and the Native American Youth and Family Center to address the loss of minority families and culture in the community and help families not only live, but also thrive in their neighborhood.

Joanne Zuhl: With the migration out of the neighborhood, what did this community lose?

Maxine Fitzpatrick: We lost indigenous Northeast Portland, African-Americans, Native Americans, and even lower income white Americans as well as Latino-Americans. It transitioned – in one year, the median family income in Northeast Portland went up 16 percent. But the residents we serve, their income went down significantly. Northeast Portland had a lower home ownership rate than any other section of the city. So you had fewer homeowners in this neighborhood, and you had the lowest income, and people come in and median income rises.

And many of them at the same time lost their jobs, because this was at the time when we were transitioning from a manufacturing base to more of a service base, where people lived.

0301fitzpatrick121J.Z.: So the economy of their neighborhood changed, their buying power went down, and they weren’t keeping up. What stories were people telling you about this?

M.F.: We would have people coming in and saying they had 30 days to move. Some said they didn’t even know the house was on the market, and then the house was sold. And they got a 30-day notice to move. And we heard that over and over and over again.

J.Z.: What did you do?

M.F.: We didn’t have near the (necessary amount of) housing to accommodate all those people. Not nearly enough. So they ended up being on their own, going where they could. I’m talking hundreds, probably thousands of people. However many new residents came in – a lot of them bought vacant properties, but the vast majority of them bought properties that had people living in them already. They went to North Portland, the inner suburban rim like Gresham… And they were absentee landlords.

J.Z.: So even the money from the sale didn’t stay in the neighborhood.

M.F.: I would speculate not.

J.Z.: So the work that you were doing then, what were you able to do?

M.F.: Not very much, because there just weren’t enough people working on these areas. You’ve got NAYA, you’ve got Hacienda, you’ve got Sabin, and then you had the other smaller CDCs, and they were forced to merge together. They wanted all of us to merge together, but my board said it wasn’t a good thing to do. So the two merged together, Franciscan Enterprises and Housing Our Families. They merged to form the Albina Community Development Corporation. And after about two or three years they failed. And we ended up acquiring their portfolio.

Right now we’re still struggling in trying to incorporate that portfolio into ours. We own the assets now. We manage the units they had. It does make PCRI stronger, in the sense that we can now help more people, in the sense that we prevented those residents from losing those homes and having the properties picked up by speculators.

J.Z.: It’s also another liability.

M.F.: Absolutely. And the difficulty in PCRI’s portfolio is that they’re primarily single-family scattered sites. And no one who is interested in doing rental housing would do it with single-family homes. Cost-wise, maintenance, the whole nine yards. It’s apartment buildings (that people want).

J.Z.: Where is PCRI succeeding where Albina failed?

M.F.: I think people underestimate the difficulty of the work that we do. They underestimate the complexity. I come from a background of public housing management and real estate sales and affordable housing development. And I use every one of those skills and those experiences to make this work.

J.Z.: Why did you get into this?

M.F.: Maybe fate, because I used to live in public housing. I was married, had three kids, ended up in a divorce. My husband left and moved out of the state so he didn’t have to pay child support. I got one child support payment from him, so I did what I needed to do to make my life work. So I lived in public housing, and then realized the struggle of living in public housing, trying to raise kids on limited resources. I went back to college to better support my family, and while in college I had the opportunity to work for a public housing organization, and this really piqued my interest. And I realized that I could really relate to the residents. (My boss) couldn’t understand why they couldn’t make rent all the time, and I couldn’t either. So I would sit down with them and talk to them about it. And I turned their rent collection around and had 95 percent of them paying on time as opposed to 95 percent not paying on time. And I enjoyed helping people. I enjoy development, I understand people and I have a sensitivity for what they’re going through because I’ve been through it myself, and I think from my experience I can help them get out of whatever situation they’re in.

J.Z.: Is the situation the same for today’s folks as it was for you?

M.F.: They are having something else entirely. At the time when I decided to go back to school, I was able get Aid for Dependent Children. I was able to get a student loan, I was able to get grants to help pay for my education. Nowadays, that’s not available to people at the level that they need to pay for education. They do get some money, but not enough. So that’s the difficulty that I see. But at the same time, since I lived in that public housing, I eventually came to work at that housing authority, so I lived in a 200-unit apartment complex, so most of the women there knew me. You got to know your neighbors and you got to know the people who lived there. So when I went from living in public housing to working at the public housing agency and not living there anymore, people came to me and asked, “How did you do that?” So I had a chance to share with them my story: It was hard, I had to quit my job, go on welfare, but I got me the student loans, went back to college and got my degree. And that inspired them to do the same.

J.Z.: Why did you form the Housing Organizations of Color Coalition?

M.F.: This organization has the fewest amount of resources to address our needs, and when it gets caught up in a majority population, they don’t get served. And we deliver what we term as culturally specific services. Because culturally we are all different. So we try to address those differences in how we provide services so that we can support as many people we can. At PCRI, our population is about 50-60 percent African American, 35 percent white, with the balance being Latino or mixed.
We formed the Housing Organizations of Color Coalition so we can get the city to realize that in the larger scheme of things, they are not adequately serving the population with the greatest needs.

By Joanne Zuhl
Staff writer

Photos by Leah Nash.

One response to “Street Roots talks preserving minority affordable housing

  1. Pingback: Best SR photos of 2009 « For those who can’t afford free speech

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