By Nancy Tannler

Portland is not the only city in America in dire need of affordable housing. In the past, big cities had “ghettos” as a place where people with marginal income could afford to live, but gentrification has displaced these residents pushing them either to the outskirts of the city or even into houselessness.

Planners of Portland’s future demographics are looking for different solutions to this problem. They are trying to find ways to keep our city culturally, economically, and ethnically diverse.

Currently an exploratory program is underway that began when Cameron Herrington, anti-displacement coordinator at Living Cully, contacted Nan Stark, NE district liaison with the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS), to see how the BPS could make sure the new Comprehensive Plan included anti-displacement policies.

As a possible strategy, Herrington had the idea of identifying opportunities for developing affordable housing on land owned by faith communities. Many congregations have been declining over the years and there is no longer enough tithing to maintain their properties and buildings, and they are looking at ways to address their financial burden.

The BPS saw the merit in exploring this idea further and made a proposal to Metro through their Community Development grant program to work with faith and cultural organizations with the desire to use their land for potential affordable housing developments.

After they were awarded the Metro grant last year, Stark began working with Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon (EMO) on outreach to different faith communities – there are 435 in Portland. EMO serves as the umbrella to these organizations locally (statewide as well). They were instrumental in connecting Stark with interested organizations.

With EMO’s support, Stark organized a public forum last November to bring together people from faith organizations around the city to learn more about the idea of developing affordable housing on their land, which over one hundred people attended.

This was one of the motivating factors for some of the faith organizations to apply.

Following the forum, BPS opened up an application process to offer consulting and financial services to organizations interested in developing their property with affordable housing. They received thirteen applications and three were chosen to receive the services provided by the grant.

Recipients of the design and financial consulting services for the proposed developments will be new builds rather than repurposing existing buildings, although that would be a possibility too.

Carleton-Hart Architects will create concept drawings, and financial consultant Sharon Nielson will help explore the financial feasibility of their developments, and where different funding for loans and grants can be found.

The three recipients are Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, 5828 NE 8th Ave., – looking at developing a couple of four-plexes; Trinity Lutheran, 5520 NE Killingsworth St., – with three and a half acres of land where they would like to develop town houses; and the Muslim Community Center of Portland, 5325 N Vancouver Ave. that has a vision for a mixed residential and commercial development with community space.

As part of the Metro grant, Stark and other city staffers are studying what barriers there are to development. Seventy percent of church properties are located in residential zones where only household living uses are allowed. Other uses, such as schools and faith organizations, are Conditional Uses.

This is where they need to make zoning changes and policy adjustments in order to lighten up the conditional use barriers.

Through this process of getting to know different faith organizations and the EMO, Stark said she is impressed by the strong social justice ethic that drives faith leaders and members of their congregations to serve those in need.

They provide multiple ministries to those who don’t always know who to turn to. Behind the scenes they organize food banks, clothing and car pools; they advocate for vets and seniors, and for people with disabilities and mental health issues. They “walk their talk” believing in altruism, social justice and, in some cases, provide affordable housing to the most vulnerable.

BPS NE District Liaison Nan Stark

The grant project continues through 2019 and includes a community meeting to present the work by the design and finance consultants, and to provide a guidebook that BPS and partners are developing so more organizations can guide their future affordable housing projects.

The hope is that as more faith communities and nonprofit organizations begin to use their land for affordable housing, it will create momentum for others to follow.

The City will align its regulations to remove barriers that have often prevented these organizations from pursuing their visions.

For more information and to subscribe to email updates about the project, go to portlandoregon.gov/bps/78009.