Mayor: Efforts to aid Portland’s black neighborhoods an ‘abject failure’

The Portlandia statue, pictured from her perch on the Portland Building on October 8, 2015. (

The city of Portland’s strategy to help black residents stay in or move back to their gentrifying neighborhoods falls far short of expectations, a new report says.

Despite millions of dollars of taxpayer investments, few families have been able to benefit from city subsidies developed expressly to aid homeowners with generational ties to north and northeast Portland neighborhoods, according to the report, issued by the North/Northeast Neighborhood Housing Strategy Oversight Committee. City commissioners were briefed on the highly critical report Wednesday.

Mayor Ted Wheeler said he was "highly disappointed," adding that the city is "way off the mark" on reaching commitments enshrined in its housing strategy.

As an example of the city’s shortcomings, the panel noted that only five families have used a down payment assistance program, in part because they believe the subsidy is too low. It was hoped that 65 would sign up for a down payment subsidy of $100,000 per home buyer.

"I don’t see how I can sit here with a straight face and call it anything other than an abject failure," Wheeler said of the subsidy program.

In another example, just 18 families used a program that provides zero-interest loans for home repairs. "Millions of dollars were budgeted this year for this program," the report said of the special loan offerings, "yet relatively few dollars were spent and minimal families benefited."

Shannon Callahan, interim director of the Portland Housing Bureau, said in response that the city made a "mistake" in setting aside too much money for the loan program.

The city’s housing strategy is driven in part by an affordable housing preference policy. That system gives priority access to Portlanders who owned property taken by the city and their descendants. As an example, people displaced during the construction of the Memorial Colosseum and a planned expansion of what was then Emanuel Hospital – both of which devastated historically black neighborhoods – may be eligible for housing assistance under the preference policy.

City bureaus and non-governmental groups have been able to develop some housing in line with the north/northeast neighborhoods strategy. More than 500 rental units have been built within neighborhood boundaries, said Bishop Steven Holt, chairman of the oversight panel, who is also a local pastor.

But demand far outpaced supply. More than 735 individuals and families applied for just 31 units available at the newly-built Garlington Place Apartments at the corner of Northeast Monroe Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

"We have a long way to go," remarked Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who ran the Housing Bureau when the neighborhood plan was developed. Commissioner Nick Fish said rarely is the city council presented with a report that documents "so many failures" in a single city initiative.

For his part, Wheeler said "the buck stops with me" on problems with the Housing Bureau and city economic development bureau Prosper Portland, since he is their commissioner-in-charge. Wheeler said he and the rest of the city council will be expected to deliver on housing promises made to the families gentrified and displaced out of Portland’s black neighborhoods.

"I’m going to hold everybody accountable for ensuring that we see good progress," Wheeler said.

— Gordon R. Friedman

503-221-8209; @GordonRFriedman

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