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CCRH Presents: Northeast Passage

Article from Willamette Week

LEAD STORY

The Battle of Boise
Poverty and gentrification collide in North Portland

BY CHRIS LYDGATE
clydgate@wweek.com

Housing Our Families names its projects after living women, such as Maya Angelou, rather than dead men. The Betty Campbell building is named for the crusading principal of Boise-Eliot Elementary School.

Boise neighbor and new homeowner Nikki Williams says HOF has become a "faceless, irresponsible landlord."

A hundred years ago, the Boise neighborhood was part of Albina, a bustling community that rivaled Portland as a commercial hub.

After the Vanport flood of 1948 wiped out thousands of homes, Albina was one of the few places where blacks were legally allowed to buy property.

HOF's board of 10 directors includes five community residents, seven African Americans, three whites, three senior citizens, one lesbian/bisexual and six current or formerly low-income people--but no men.

The Battle of Boise has attracted the attention of filmmakers Cornelius Swart and Spencer Wolf, who have been videotaping neighborhood meetings for a documentary about gentrification.

Developer Terrell Garrett says HOF has painted itself into a corner.

Some of the quotes in this article were taken from one of Swart and Wolf's videotapes, which WW obtained independently.

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Drive down North Mississippi Avenue after dark and there's no question you're in a pretty tough neighborhood. You won't find the boutiques and restaurants that cluster along Northeast Broadway and Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard. Instead, battered shops and businesses huddle behind iron grilles and barbed-wire fences, and the window blinds are drawn. If you cruise along in the right kind of car, you'll get plenty of attention from the dope peddlers who patrol the corners.Drug transactions in the Boise neighborhood are not restricted to vacant lots or crack houses. Many take place in plain view outside the elegant new Betty Campbell building, a mix of offices and low-income apartments that is also the headquarters of Housing Our Families, a nonprofit agency.

HOF, which owns and operates the Betty Campbell building and 159 other low-income rental units in North and Northeast Portland, is a key provider of subsidized housing in the area. Over the past several weeks, however, Housing Our Families has been thrust into the center of an acrimonious debate about neighborhood revitalization. Projects such as the Betty Campbell building were supposed to rescue this neighborhood from decades of despair. Instead, critics say, they are tearing it apart.

Drug activity around the building has grown so intense that several local residents and business owners contend that Housing Our Families is a neighborhood menace.

"HOF is a faceless, irresponsible landlord," says Nikki Williams, a single mother who owns a house a few blocks away.

"They're totally out of control," agrees Terrell Garrett, a developer who owns an office building across the street.

In January, the Boise Neighborhood Association launched a letter-writing campaign that put two of HOF's proposed developments on hold and sent local housing officials scrambling for a way to resolve the increasingly bitter conflict. The city has even sent in professional mediators to try and defuse the dispute, which has raised accusations of incompetence, racism and greed.

The agency's management is confident it can overcome these challenges. "This represents a bump in the road for us, not a sinkhole," says Joan Miggins, HOF's interim executive director.

At first glance, this might seem nothing more than a neighborhood dispute, the sort of parochial squabble that has become all too common in the last decade. From methadone clinics to Holocaust memorials, it seems no project escapes the wrath of the neighbors. But the battle of Boise has deeper significance. It provides a remarkable illustration of how an organization that began as a grassroots group of women fighting for their neighborhood now finds itself increasingly viewed as a haughty outsider, remote from community concerns. It demonstrates the potential pitfalls facing nonprofit groups trying to renew their neighborhoods. And it provides a case study of how market forces, shifting demographics and government policies are conspiring to change the face of the inner city, creating profound tension in the process.

Just four years ago, Housing Our Families was considered the matron saint of the Boise neighborhood. The group had just taken over the 42-unit Colonial Apartments, a run-down complex on North Kerby Avenue and Shaver Street notorious for drugs and gangs. With government grants and loans, HOF remodeled the units, putting in a new community center, a playground, a new roof and a fresh coat of paint. It instituted art classes for children and volunteer foot patrols. To complete the transformation, HOF renamed the complex the Maya Angelou Apartments, in honor of the famous poet. Angelou herself visited the project in 1995. "I am so delighted," she told a cheering crowd. "I am overwhelmed to be here."

The ambitious project won a prestigious national award for its efforts to integrate social, economic and aesthetic values. Neighbors were delighted. "Nobody in their right mind would have touched that building," says City Commissioner Erik Sten. "HOF did a wonderful job."

For the agency, the project represented the culmination of years of community-building that began in the late '80s, when decades of neglect had pushed the neighborhood to the brink of despair. "No decent person would come on Mississippi," says longtime resident Leonard Smith, the proprietor of Grandfather's General Store.

Led by Alberta Simmons, a retired teaching assistant, a group of women got together in 1989 and started Housing Our Families, a community development corporation, or CDC. This peculiar breed of private nonprofit agency emerged in the Reagan era in response to the desperate state of the nation's inner cities and the government's apparent inability to do anything about it. CDCs were everything the lumbering government housing agencies weren't. Rather than marching into the ghetto, bulldozing acres of slums and erecting huge concrete apartments, the CDCs took a small-is-beautiful approach. Drawing on funding from an alphabet soup of government programs, they focused on their own neighborhoods, identifying dilapidated properties and renovating them one by one. Housing Our Families, for example, began by fixing up a run-down fourplex on North Mississippi Avenue.

On paper, the CDC approach was less efficient than the massive projects favored by government agencies. But the strategy had a major advantage: It worked.

A key element to their success was that grassroots CDCs could overcome the neighborhood opposition and bitterness that bedeviled so many government housing projects. "When we started this trajectory of neighborhood-based revitalization, we knew it would not be cheaper," says former Housing Commissioner Gretchen Kafoury, who helped shift the city's housing policy towards CDCs. "But we thought it would be better."

Portland now boasts two dozen CDCs, ranging in size from Inner Westside CDC, with just one employee and an annual operating budget of $46,500, to REACH Community Development, Inc., with 36 employees and an annual operating budget of $2.4 million.

Partly because of the efforts of CDCs and partly because of the buoyant economy, inner North and Northeast Portland--and the Boise neighborhood in particular--have made an astonishing turnaround in the last 10 years. Crime is down, property values are up, and the poverty which gripped this neighborhood for so long is beginning to ease. In 1989, 40 percent of the households were below the poverty level, the median house value was $37,000, and just 33 percent of units were owner-occupied. Times have changed. By 1996, the median house value was $150,000, 39 percent of units were owner-occupied, and the number of people living in poverty had fallen. Last year reported crimes fell 22 percent.

"As much as anybody, [HOF] is responsible for helping revitalize that neighborhood," says Steve Rudman, the director of the Portland Bureau of Housing and Community Development.

With success came rapid expansion. HOF has grown into a burgeoning organization, with assets of more than $13 million and nine full-time employees. The agency now rents out 168 low-income units. Another 102 units are under development. "We started out as a very small organization and have grown very quickly," says director Miggins.

But the breakneck growth has come at a price. From her office in the Betty Campbell building, overlooking the corner of Mississippi and Shaver, Miggins must now find a way to steer HOF through the biggest crisis in its 10-year history.

In the last two years, the agency has been beset by one problem after another.

Since 1997, the agency has gone through a string of temporary directors, including Barbara Willer, who last year unsuccessfully ran for Multnomah County Commissioner. Miggins, who has served as the agency's interim executive director since mid-February, says she is committed to staying with HOF until it can find a permanent replacement.

Another problem emerged in December, when a CPA hired by HOF determined that former bookkeeper Kalia Durham had improperly withdrawn about $20,000 from the agency's funds. "We were stunned," says Miggins. In January, HOF filed a police report accusing Durham of embezzlement. (Durham is also accused of forging checks worth $11,000 from another nonprofit, KBOO-FM.)

More significant--and disturbing--are the persistent reports of drug dealing at the Betty Campbell building.

Initially, the Boise Neighborhood Association had supported the Betty Campbell, which rents to families who earn no more than 60 percent of the median income. But last year, after the building had been open only six months, neighbors began to complain about drug activity. "It was completely out of control," says Garrett, who has owned a building across the street for the past five years. People were dropping drugs out of the second-story window to street dealers below, according to neighbors and tenants, and drug transactions were conducted outside the main doorway and in the entrance hall.

The complaints are buttressed by police incident reports for the block, which have tripled since the Betty Campbell opened in 1997.

By December, neighbors and tenants were desperate. "It was a crack house, crack alley, whatever," says tenant Tarzine Jackson, a single mother who works for the state welfare division. "It was just horrible."

HOF finally evicted the tenant who appeared to be at the center of the drug activity and hired a security guard. But because of the expense, the agency dropped the guard after only a week. The activity, which had slowed to a crawl, has since picked up again. "I don't feel safe," says Jackson. "You've got gangbangers, drug-dealers. What if they stab me and steal my purse?"

"We're approached almost every day," says tenant Kevin Buck, an out-of-work carpenter who barricades his door at night with a split maul to protect his family from intruders.

Miggins acknowledges the ongoing drug activity in and around the Betty Campbell. "It is extremely frustrating," she says.

To be sure, shutting down a drug market is no mean feat, in part because of the increasing sophistication of the drug trade. For example, the conspicuous street-corner "flaggers" seldom carry contraband themselves, instead directing buyers to more secluded locations. Another problem is that agencies such as HOF, which receive federal funds, cannot evict tenants on mere suspicion--there's got to be solid evidence of wrongdoing. In some cases the dealers are not tenants; they simply base their operations in a tenant's apartment.

The situation is made more difficult for police by the immediate environment, which includes a pay phone, a bus stop and a corner store--offering dealers a smorgasbord of excuses for hanging around the building.

Some of the agency's problems can be traced to factors beyond its control, but others suggest a level of hubris--or HOF's inability to come to grips with the unglamorous but vital task of property management.

The building is less than two years old, but its interior already shows signs of heavy wear. The front door does not latch unless it's pushed shut. The carpeting on the hallway is scuffed and stained--"At least it doesn't still smell of urine," says Jackson--and lighting fixtures in the hallway have been removed, leaving exposed wires. The toilet seats have no lids, and there's a wicked scar running down the door to Jackson's apartment.

Distracted by a raft of new projects, including the 74-unit Alberta Simmons Plaza, which is slated to open later this year, HOF has neglected some of its community-building activities, allowing the foot patrols and the tenant councils to lapse. "We forgot our grassroots for a while here," says Miggins. "The transition has really cost us in relations with our tenants and with our neighbors."

The agency's own policies may have contributed to its headaches. Years ago, the HOF board decided not to run police record checks on prospective renters because they felt such checks unfairly discriminated against minorities. (Unlike criminal background checks, police record checks include anyone whose name appears on a police report--whether as a suspect, victim, witness or innocent bystander.) Now the board is reviewing that policy.

As Miggins discusses these problems with a visitor, a brawl erupts on the corner outside. A clutch of youths in knit caps, athletic coats and sagging jeans hoot and jeer as one young man slugs the other in the face. Someone yells that the cops are on their way. The struggle ends as abruptly as it began, and the pugilists vanish down the block. But there is no siren, and the police do not come.

If there is one single issue that demonstrates the agency's deteriorating relationship with its neighbors, it is the proposed development known as Fargo Row.

In concert with developer Tom Walsh & Co., HOF is planning a 10-unit rowhouse on a vacant lot at North Fargo Street and Kerby Avenue, as well as a six-unit rowhouse on Northeast 10th Avenue and Alberta Street. The firm, owned by the former Tri-Met director, would develop and build the projects, then turn ownership over to HOF.

The arrangement holds benefits for both parties: For HOF, the deal represents a chance to take ownership of a project for a relatively small investment. For Walsh, having a nonprofit partner improves his chances of obtaining favorable state financing and would, in theory, help quell neighborhood opposition to the project.

But when neighbors learned about Fargo Row, the sentiment against HOF, which was already strong, reached fever pitch. At a dramatic meeting of the Boise Neighborhood Association on Jan. 11, one neighbor after another stood up and blasted the proposal.

"These people have been poverty-pimping us long enough," said contractor Ed Durham.

"Every place in this neighborhood has improved but the properties that HOF owns," said teaching assistant Carl Edwards.

"I am now your enemy," developer Garrett told HOF representatives. "I want you out of my neighborhood."

The neighbors circulated a petition and began a letter-writing campaign. They got results: On Jan. 19, a senior HUD official, Donald Phillips, sent a letter to the city reminding it that federal regulations require local housing authorities to respond to citizen complaints within 15 days. Meanwhile, the city put the $361,000 earmarked for Fargo Row on hold until the neighbors and HOF could work out their differences.

Williams, who lives a block away from the proposed site, says it's a matter of common sense: HOF should not break ground on any new project until it can solve the problems at the Betty Campbell. "They're growing too fast, and they're not able to handle that," she says. "They're biting off too much too soon."

HOF's defenders--and there are many--tend to discount the agency's critics as newcomers who don't want subsidized housing in their neighborhood. "There's this whole NIMBY thing going on in Northeast from people who've moved into the neighborhood, who are part of gentrification," says Jane Ediger, who formerly served on HOF's board of directors.

It's true that many of the people opposed to Fargo Row are relatively new to Boise, Garrett being a prime example. But Garrett says he opposes Fargo Row because of HOF's track record. "Subsidized housing is a good thing," he says. "We gotta have it. It's a question of how it's managed and whether the CDC is capable of using the public trust. If they can't, let's get someone else in here."

Others suggest the complaints are fueled by racism on the part of affluent white whiners who resent having to share their turf with the poor blacks they are displacing. Longtime Boise resident Charles Ford was quoted in The Skanner as saying that the flap over HOF was about "keeping a certain ethnicity out of the neighborhood."

There's no denying that the debate over subsidized housing in Boise has stirred racial tensions. But it would be a mistake to view the question in purely racial terms. Some of HOF's most vocal critics are black and are unrepentant about challenging the agency's management to clean up its act.

"Honey, I'm born and bred in the hood," says Williams, the youngest of 11 children, who grew up in North Portland and who bought her house with the help of Habitat for Humanity. "I've lived there all my life. People sometimes say, 'How can you [criticize HOF]? You're black.' It's because I'm black and I've put up with this shit all my life."

"I'm not anti-Housing Our Families," Williams continues. "I'm anti-mismanagement."

HOF's defenders say some of the criticism is animated by personal motives. Leonard Smith once owned the property where the Betty Campbell now stands but lost it because he was unable to obtain city loans to fix it up. Ed Durham, who during the Jan. 11 BNA meeting alluded to "poverty pimps," is the older brother of Kalia Durham, the bookkeeper accused of embezzlement.

For the record, Smith and Durham both deny that their views on HOF have been colored by their experiences.

Without question, some of the noise in Boise can be traced to a combination of inconsistent management, thin-skinned neighbors and plain bad luck. But the real reason for the agency's troubles may be structural. Simply put, HOF has fallen prey to the very market forces it helped unleash.

By venturing onto North Mississippi Avenue and taking on risky projects, HOF paved the way for the feisty homeowners and small-business people who now clamor for improvement at neighborhood meetings.

Ironically, this revitalization has contributed to overheated real-estate prices, which in turn keep pushing up the cost of subsidized housing. Because CDCs such as HOF cannot simply raise their rents to cover their costs, many of them rely on a steady stream of new projects--and the associated developers' fees--in order to produce new revenue.

Unfortunately, the pool of vacant and abandoned buildings, a key source of projects for CDCs citywide, has dried to a puddle. According to the Bureau of Buildings, there are fewer than 200 such properties left in the entire city, down from 1,600 10 years ago.

As a result, CDCs are scrambling to find new ways to continue their mission. "We are remodeling or building housing for very disenfranchised folks, and there isn't any money to be made in this, which is why the nonprofits do it," says Miggins. "Yes, part of the way a CDC operates is developers' fees. Our goal is to provide affordable housing. The need is still great. But it's getting harder because developers who [once] wouldn't set foot north of Broadway are in here scooping it up."

City officials, including Rudman and Commissioner Erik Sten, are optimistic that HOF can overcome its difficulties. But that optimism is tempered by a growing sense of urgency as creeping gentrification continues to displace low-income people from their own neighborhoods, making the role of CDCs even more crucial--and even more difficult.

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Willamette Week | originally published March 17, 1999


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