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March 12th, 2003 Aimee L. Curl | News Stories
 

BLASTING THE GHETTO

Portland is betting on middle-class families to save Columbia Villa.

     
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Sidebar: A Moving Experience
Sidebar: Project School

Luvenia Jackson can still hear the shots in her head. She had just settled in to watch some late-night TV when the calm in her living room was shattered by the crack of gunfire and a frantic scream rattling in from the porch: "Your cousin's been hit!"

That unforgettable summer evening almost 15 years ago lingers stubbornly in her mind's eye: The park on North Woolsey Avenue, no police yet. Jackson's cousin Tanisha, shot in the buttocks. Two more teenage girls, unable to escape the rapid rain of bullets, shot in the back. Joseph "Ray Ray" Winston, 17, face down in a pool of blood, the victim of the city's first gang-related drive-by shooting.

That was Aug. 17, 1988, a day that ripped Portland's veil of innocence and still defines Jackson's North Portland neighborhood. Today, as a result of stepped-up security and attention of Portland Police, the area's crime rate is just slightly higher than that of the surrounding Portsmouth neighborhood. But the enduring cloud of fear created by Winston's death and a spate of shootings that summer has kept outsiders from wandering onto Jackson's street. The sound of frequent gun shots still keeps residents on edge. Many say they don't feel safe. This is Columbia Villa.

Past the Starbucks and the strip malls, the private university and the SUV dealerships sits an 80-acre parcel of land above North Lombard Street that is home to nearly 1,200 Portlanders.

It's a place whose 462 households earn, on average, just over $10,850 a year. It's where a quarter of residents survive only with the help of federal and state aid, and where more than 100 adults have no source of income.

It's home to the most diverse census tract in the state, No. 40.01, nearly equal parts black, white and Hispanic residents with a smattering of Asians, Eastern Europeans and Native Americans, where snippets of conversation drift by in Maya and Hmong.

It's where the orderly grid of the surrounding Portsmouth neighborhood gives way to a disorienting maze of streets that wind inward on themselves, connecting dilapidated one-story buildings where people sit silently on concrete porches.

This is Portland's ghetto.

It may not be the looming, concrete towers of Chicago's Cabrini Green or the crowded confines of Baltimore's Lafayette Courts, but the squat, deteriorating housing project serves the same purpose--to concentrate poverty and keep it from the surrounding neighborhood.

Like Cabrini Green and dozens before it, this ghetto is on the verge of a major makeover.

Soon, bulldozers will knock down the decaying apartments and topple the rusty swing sets to make way for shiny new homes.

Over the next five years, the Housing Authority of Portland will try to pull off a $152 million metamorphosis--one of the largest neighborhood redevelopments this state has ever seen.

This isn't just about bricks and mortar. Scores of the poorest families will be permanently moved out, replaced by a combination of low-income, working- and middle-class neighbors. It's a social experiment as daring and as controversial as the policy that created the projects in the first place, and it's a vision few other cities have successfully fulfilled.

Even some affordable-housing advocates have concerns about the very real challenges posed by this new form of social engineering.

"There are human problems that no architect or urban planner in the world can design away," says Portland City Commissioner Erik Sten. "You can't solve the problems created by poverty through a housing strategy, although sometimes people talk like you can."

Demolition of Columbia Villa, constructed in 1942 as temporary housing for World War II shipbuilders, will begin in September. The 462 barrack-style apartments will be razed to make way for 850 new units.

More than 200 of these will be houses, for sale to middle-class families, priced from $120,000 to $175,000. A handful of houses will be built for low-income residents. The rest will be apartments, subsidized by HAP for people who earn less than 60 percent of the median family income, or around $30,000 or less for a family of four. Nearly 100 of the poorest residents, earning less than 30 percent of the median, will be permanently relocated to other HAP properties.

The idea is that someone passing through won't be able to distinguish any difference in quality between the apartment buildings and the homes--the haves and the have-nots. Their kids will play together in a central park-type space. The mother of seven with food stamps and the hipster first-time homeowner will shop side by side at the neighborhood grocery store, eat lunch at the same corner sandwich shop.

As both a symbolic and practical way of connecting the new Columbia Villa to the rest of the Portsmouth neighborhood, the streets will be reconfigured to match the regular, rectangular grid.

Although the state and city have agreed to pony up sizable chunks of cash, the transformation of Portland's ghetto is only possible with $40 million from a federal program called HOPE VI (see "A Moving Experience").

Started in the early '90s by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the program has facilitated massive facelifts for close to 150 public-housing projects nationwide, including the Richard Allen Homes in Philadelphia, Holly Park in Seattle and Cabrini Green.

Columbia Villa is Oregon's only public-housing development large enough to qualify.

The idea behind HOPE VI is not only to knock down and rebuild the nation's festering ghettos, but to create communities where the poor can rub shoulders with the middle class.

"If you take a high number of very low-income families and put them all in one place, it's going to be hard for any of those families to move up the economic ladder," says Will White, executive director of the Housing Development Center, a Portland nonprofit that provides technical assistance to community-development organizations. "There's fewer opportunities than when someone, for example, knows a young neighbor who's looking for a job and can help give him or her a leg up."

No one had to convince Steve Rudman that past attempts at public housing have failed. HAP's executive director got an early introduction to projects growing up in the outskirts of Philadelphia. "They were deplorable, uninhabitable buildings," he says.

His parents joined the white flight out of the city in search of safer streets and stronger schools. Later, as an aide for Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Bob Edgar, Rudman was asked to study housing and community-development issues in his home state. But his heart wasn't in Washington. In 1978, he left the rat race and headed west, drawn to Portland because of the city's quality of life and progressive planning.

In 1985, Rudman became chairman of the board at REACH Community Development, a group that provides low-income housing in Portland's inner Southeast neighborhoods. He also served as executive director for four years at Southeast Uplift--a nonprofit coalition that focuses on community development and urban planning--before heading to City Hall in 1989. Rudman went on to head the Bureau of Housing and Community Development in 1993 and took the reins at HAP two years ago.

Created in 1941, HAP is a commission authorized under state law and chartered by the city of Portland. In 1991, it expanded to serve all of Multnomah County and now assists about 35,000 people with public housing, affordable housing or rental-assistance vouchers. The agency receives the bulk of its annual $80 million budget from federal HUD grants.

Recent HAP accomplishments include developing Pearl Court and Lovejoy Station in the city's River District, which Rudman calls "workforce housing" for one of the city's more expensive neighborhoods.

Last month, HAP reopened and welcomed residents back to the St. Francis, a 132-unit, mixed-income building in downtown's up-and-coming West End.

"Though an aggressive agenda, we've been able to spread out, deconcentrate poverty to some extent and provide opportunities for people with different incomes to live throughout the county," Rudman says.

The glaring exception, of course, is the labyrinth of decaying barracks in North Portland. Blasting apart Columbia Villa represents the biggest gamble of Rudman's career. "It's one of the most complex, frustrating, real challenges I've been involved in," says Rudman, 48, whose sandy brown hair is turning a lighter shade of gray. "It's not only the physical rebuilding of this community, but the social and economic change as well."

America's ghettoization of
the poor, Rudman says, was no accident.

"These developments were detached from the rest of the town, on the other side of the tracks, up on hills or in valleys. Sometimes they were placed with good intentions; sometimes they were built because people said, 'Let's make sure these people don't live near me,'" he says. "The isolation was social and economic."

It still is.

Luvenia Jackson and her daughter Lucinda Williams are well aware of what the Villa means to people on the outside.

A strong, tall woman with a gentle smile, Jackson, 46, moved to the Villa from another HAP-owned apartment in 1977. Today, she feels much safer than she did following the night Ray Ray was shot, months when she refused to leave her home even to walk down the street.

Still, she says Columbia Villa "has always had a reputation and always will. People don't come in here."

Her daughter remembers having a hard time convincing friends to come over just a few years ago. "They'd say, 'No, not the Villa!'" recalls Williams, 19.

Given Columbia Villa's reputation, both Williams and her mom question whether HAP will be able to entice middle-class families to move in.

"It will be interesting to see how they convince people to buy homes," Jackson says. "Who wants to live in a low-income neighborhood?"

"Maybe they could bring them in on a tour," Williams says. "Bring them in together on a bus to help change their minds."

Sten says he'd buy a home in the new Columbia Villa.

"Is there a stigma? Sure. But you don't need to be able to convince everyone," he says. "You just need to sell 200."

The selling will actually be done by a handful of developers who will buy the vacant lots from HAP and, with the housing authority, build and market the 200 middle-income homes.

Other cities that have succeeded in luring middle-class families to former projects built houses and condominiums in gentrifying neighborhoods, often close to downtown. Outer North Portland hardly fits this description, though Rudman calls the area "a sleeping jewel."

"No doubt there's a challenge in terms of perception," he says. "How will we compete for home buyers? We need to deal with misconceptions and make sure people think about the community that we're building in conjunction with this process."

One person who is convinced the market-rate homes will sell is Richard Ellmyer, who lives only a few blocks away.

"With the right advertising budget, you can sell anything," he says. "If you created attractive housing in the $150,000-to-$250,000 range, you could still sell that here. You could say something like, 'For all you folks who believe in integrated housing, come put your money where your mouth is.'"

An organic gardener and registered Democrat, Ellmyer has emerged as the unlikely chief critic of the changes at Columbia Villa.

Like Rudman, he was drawn to Portland in the '70s to enjoy what was becoming a very livable city.

"Neil Goldschmidt was mayor, and he was saying to folks like me, 'If you decide to buy a house and move, you should come back to the city--you'll like it here.'" So Ellmyer and his wife packed up their Beaverton apartment and found the perfect place to settle in Portsmouth.

The 56-year-old computer consultant got his start in politics working for Democratic state Sen. Bill McCoy, Oregon's first black state lawmaker and later worked for McCoy's wife, Gladys, the first African American to serve as Multnomah County Commissioner.

He lives about eight blocks from Columbia Villa and, for the past two years, has dedicated virtually every spare moment to stopping its ambitious overhaul.

He says he'd "like to end this pocket of poverty and integrate it," but argues the plan for Columbia Villa won't go far enough toward creating a mixed-income community. Instead, he says, it will double the size of "Oregon's largest ghetto," and that's "bad public policy."

Although he frames his objections in public-policy questions relating to density, scratch the surface and they sound an awful lot like classic not-in-my-backyard arguments.

Ellmyer says changing the mix of how much of a subsidy Columbia Villa's residents get doesn't count as integration. In his book, a handout is a handout, regardless of the degree.

"HAP clients are HAP clients," he says matter-of-factly. "There's a difference between a family that only earns 60 percent of the median family income but still figures out how to live without HAP's help and a family that, for whatever reason, says they can't survive without assistance."

Ellmyer has collected close to 70 signatures of residents and business owners who are against the project. "I'm not beyond thinking that people can improve themselves, but it's hard if you get stuck in the same rut," says Patti Deitz, who owns Patti's Home Plate at 8501 N Lombard St. "Bunching them up just isn't a good idea."

Ellmyer says HAP needs to create equal numbers of market-rate and subsidized units if it wants to truly integrate Columbia Villa and its inhabitants into the surrounding neighborhood. He says current residents don't extend themselves outside the Villa's borders. "They never participate in our organizations," he says.

Jackson agrees that Columbia Villa residents keep to themselves, which makes her skeptical about the integration promised by HOPE VI. "We don't mix with people who live around here," she says. "I don't think that tearing something down will change that."

Beyond the question of whether HAP can persuade middle-class families to move into Columbia Villa is whether it should.

Jackson, for one, isn't sure it's such a good idea.

"There's a tolerance, an understanding now," she says. "People let their kids run across each other's yards. Nobody minds."

Williams, who lives with her mom, says she could easily imagine conflicts. "What happens if a low-income person is playing their music loud and the person next door, who owns their house, complains and says, "Turn that music down!"?

Sue Popkin, who's surveyed people living in various HOPE VI projects, says she wouldn't be surprised to see these kinds of tensions crop up. Yet, she's more concerned by a complete lack of contact.

Popkin, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., says she's found little evidence of any interaction between poor and middle-class residents in HUD's other newly minted mixed-income projects. She seemed skeptical about HAP's plan of restricting the market-rate units to homes, while confining most of the subsidized units to apartment buildings.

"There will be an obvious, physical distinction between the houses and the apartments," she says. "They won't integrate."

According to Popkin, there's never been a formal evaluation of HOPE VI, let alone a systematic study of the mixed-income component of the program.

There's no doubt that HOPE VI program has cleaned up some of America's worst ghettos. But yet to be answered, Popkin says, is whether the "larger societal goals" have been met.

"We have to decide what we think is important," she says. "Is it enough that the streets are safer and the schools are better? Is this accomplishing what we want?"

Columbia Villa could be one of the last chances to ask, let alone answer, such questions. Money for HOPE VI was not included in the budget HUD sent to Congress earlier this year, although the House and Senate are still wrangling over the issue.

Donna White, a HUD spokeswoman, says the program has done what it set out to do.

"The department identified 80,000 units to be demolished, and 55,000 have been demolished," White says. "Another 23,000 [including Columbia Villa's] have been approved for demolition."

When asked whether the government had also succeed in creating "mixed income" communities free from the stigma and isolation that preceded them, White is less sure.

"We don't have any statistics on that," she says.

Sten concedes the social engineering proposed for Columbia Villa is risky. "There's no perfect solution to this country's long-running class barriers," he says. He agrees people tend to feel more comfortable around "people like themselves." But, he adds, "this doesn't mean mixed-income housing doesn't work. On the whole, if you have people of all income levels, you're better off."

While curious about Portland's experiment, Luvenia Jackson and her family aren't planning to be part of it. She and her daughter see the forced relocation as an opportunity to move somewhere else in North Portland.

Holding her 3-month-old baby, Zyiah, close as she gazes out the window, Williams says she's skeptical that the new buildings and middle-income neighbors will bring dramatic change.

"It's still going to be Columbia Villa," she says, "no matter what."

A MOVING EXPERIENCE
The $152 million Columbia Villa project will tap federal, state and local checkbooks.

Anyone who's ever moved knows the hassles and headaches involved. Multiply it by 462 and you've got a logistical nightmare--one that could cost up to $5 million.

That's the relocation budget for Columbia Villa, where residents could begin moving out as early as next month to allow the demolition and rebuilding of Portland's largest public housing complex.

Residents will have the option of moving into other Housing Authority of Portland-owned public housing scattered throughout the county, or into market-rate housing using federally subsidized "Section 8" vouchers.

Regardless of which type they choose, HAP will play the role of mover, and more. "We will box up their belongings and take them there," says New Columbia Project Manager Tuck Wilson. "We will also help address other issues like setting up utilities."

HAP has secured enough federal Section 8 money for each Columbia Villa household. The trick, however, is finding enough local landlords willing to accept the tenants. Unlike in some states, landlords in Oregon aren't required to take Section 8 renters.

"It's an extensive job of identifying large landlords and vacant units," says HAP Executive Director Steve Rudman. "If we're going to be crunched anywhere, it will be in North Portland. If everyone wanted to stay there, we wouldn't be able to accommodate them."

The task is costly. In addition to the $5 million set aside for moving and relocation costs, another $5 million will be spent on support services for residents before and during their time away from Columbia Villa.

HAP plans to apply for a $4 million grant to tear down the neighborhood. The remaining $148 million in costs is for moving and rebuilding.

In addition to the $35 million in federal HOPE VI grant dollars, construction will be funded by $80 million from the state in the form of incentives offered to private investors, tax-exempt bonds and other private debt. The City of Portland has committed $20 million, although it's not clear how the funds will be raised.

HAP is banking on donations from private foundations, corporations and individuals, and the sale of home lots to developers in the new Columbia Villa to raise the remaining $20 million. --ALC


PROJECT SCHOOL


Allison Couch gets great reviews at CLarendon Elementary

In a city that often talks about "celebrating" diversity, Clarendon Elementary actually has to deal with it--and, in general, the North Portland school is getting good reviews.

Clarendon, which educates about 150 kids from Columbia Villa, has the highest share of students enrolled in English as a Second Language programs of any Portland elementary school (36 percent this year). Many of them are recent immigrants from places as far-flung as Somalia, Guatemala and Laos.

It is also one of the poorest schools in the district, with 88.7 percent of the students qualifying for free or reduced lunch.

The demolition of Columbia Villa means that up to a third of Clarendon Principal Allison Couch's students may not be back next fall. "With no other public housing in the area, these families are going to be spread all over creation," says Couch.

That creates uncertainty not only for Columbia Villa families, but also for parents who live elsewhere in the Portsmouth neighborhood.

Short-term, the loss of so many low-income students could mean a drop of $200,000 in federal funding, forcing cuts to the staff. If enrollment drops below 400 students, Clarendon could even be shut down.

Long-term, the school district has asked for land to be reserved at the rebuilt Columbia Villa as a future school site. That, too could, spell the end for Clarendon, which has developed fans among parents both inside and outside the Villa.

"For me it's been fantastic," says Zenora Coronel, a Columbia Villa resident whose 11-year-old son attended the school and whose daughter is currently in fourth grade there. "I've been involved with the school for five and a half years. The principal really cares about everyone. She's always going the extra mile for the kids."

In the nine years Couch has been at the helm, Clarendon has seen dramatic gains in its reading and math test scores. In the period from 1998 to 2000, fifth-grade students' reading scores rose 22 percent and math scores jumped 18 percent.

Couch has also boosted parental involvement through a program called Families and Schools Together. Coronel, who works in Columbia Villa's computer center, says students don't seem to care who lives in the projects and who doesn't. "It's pretty integrated," she says. "It's the adults who pay attention to that." --Anne Laufe


According to Portland Police statistics, there were 38 aggravated assaults, four sexual assaults and 77 burglaries and car thefts in the Columbia Villa area last year.









Last June, the North Portland Business Association sent a letter to HAP saying the Columbia Villa overhaul doesn't "enhance neighborhood livability" or promote "economic improvement of the business community."









Richard Ellmyer regularly updates www.goodgrowthnw.org , a website dedicated to his opposition to Columbia Villa's HOPE VI project.









When the new Columbia Villa is finished, current residents will have first dibs on coming back. Preliminary HAP surveys show 70 percent of Villa residents plan to return (more than twice the return rate seen at most other HOPE VI projects in the country).
 
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