REACH of Portland, Oregon
In the early 1980s, REACH, a fledgling community development corporation (CDC) in Portland, Oregon, formed a complicated limited partnership to buy a vacant lot and several nearby homes. REACH turned to private investors to help purchase the properties, as public and private lenders had not yet been convinced a CDC could deliver. More than a decade later, REACH phased out the partnership and developed the vacant lot for three first-time, low-income homeowners.
REACH is a classic example of a CDC that started with a strong vision and became successful through trial and error. [see Shelterforce #40, Sept/Oct 1987] REACH’s aggressive property acquisition in the 1980s created a pool of affordable housing before a wave of rising prices swept through Portland. The group’s early organizers had a passion for their work and a strong commitment to their neighborhood. But, like many new CDCs at the time, REACH was thinly capitalized and took on projects for which there was too little money. Building renovations were done on extremely tight budgets, and a few years later were showing signs of wear.
REACH entered the 1990s with a negative balance sheet and the need for costly repairs, and spent the early part of the decade refinancing and restructuring debts and borrowing additional funds to re-renovate buildings. With finances under control, REACH began to focus more on management and staff capacity. A local, newly formed intermediary, the Neighborhood Partnership Fund, provided operating support for a Certified Public Account to manage REACH’s increasingly complex books and a part-time fundraiser to help increase unrestricted revenue.
These efforts paid off. REACH now owns over 600 units of housing on 70 properties, has helped turn around neighborhoods and bring stability to some people’s lives, and has begun a number of promising new programs.
Planning Provides Focus
Developing a five-year strategic plan in 1990 was a turning point for REACH. REACH went from being reactive to proactive and began a conscious effort to strengthen connections with the community.
At a time when REACH was one of the only CDCs in town, the strategic plan also gave staff license to say no when others proposed projects that didn’t really fit the organization’s core mission. Although affordable rental housing was the primary focus, REACH began to branch out.
Most significant were REACH’s new Neighborhood Action Plans and expansion into community organizing. The Action Plans are a community-based planning initiative that focuses REACH’s housing development work in small “targeted” areas and brings local residents and business owners together to plan improvement for their communities. REACH works with the community to address a wide range of issues – from crime prevention to neighborhood beautification, and from traffic to zoning. The process has won national recognition from President Clinton and The Bruner Foundation and has since become the model the city of Portland uses to allocate a portion of its Community Development Block Grants.
The first action plan focused on community-identified priorities in an area called West Clinton.* REACH facilitated the plan, leveraged over a million dollars in public and private funds, renovated 21 of the worst homes in the area, and coordinated a number of community projects, including purchasing vacant land and creating a community garden and gathering place, organizing block watches, and adding a buffer zone to protect the residential areas from further expansion by local industries. For every project, someone from the community was asked to take a leadership role, with support from REACH staff, to ensure the project’s completion. This helped build community ownership over the plan.
Among the West Clinton Action Plan’s biggest achievements was the community involvement and leadership that grew from the process. One hundred and fifteen households (in an area of 380 households) got involved in Action Plan activities. Several people who became active during this time went on to join the board of the local neighborhood association.
A second achievement was the high level of cooperation between REACH and the public agencies that agreed to focus their work in West Clinton. For example, the Portland Bureau of Buildings sent a team of inspectors out to tag all code violators. REACH followed up with information about free neighborhood clean-ups and low-interest housing rehab loan programs to encourage violators to correct the problem. This “stick and carrot” approach corrected 70 code violations in the area in a short time.
Partnerships Expand Opportunities
REACH’s second five year plan, completed in 1995, built on the CDC’s new fiscal solvency and strong community support. Again REACH looked to broaden its agenda. Staff chose to continue with rental housing development and community planning while adding new home ownership projects, neighborhood business district revitalization, and community building.
REACH’s first homeownership project responded to the need for housing that could accommodate the growing population without expanding Portland’s Urban Growth Boundary. The American Institute of Architects held a design competition to solicit innovative designs, and the Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland agreed to hold a show of homes for the public once the project was complete. A group of five organizations asked REACH to develop a model project that would demonstrate that higher density in-fill housing could be compatible in older neighborhoods. REACH added one more goal: half of the homes needed to be affordable to lower income first-time buyers.
Dubbed “City Life,” the project was unique in Portland. It turned vacant, inner-city land into mixed-income, transit-oriented, medium density housing for homeowners. The project brought many challenges. At the time, neither the city nor the state housing agencies were funding affordable homeownership projects. As a result, most subsidies came from private foundations, requiring extensive grant writing. Keeping the project affordable and in line with inner-city housing values meant that the winning designs needed extensive “value engineering” to bring costs in line with the budget. In addition, the architects idea of what compatible design meant varied drastically from the people in the neighborhood, putting REACH in the role of mediator to re-work designs to everyone’s satisfaction. After more than two years, City Life was completed, and the project has won several local and national awards.*
Investing in Local Businesses
The second Neighborhood Action Plan REACH developed was in Belmont, a 5 x 12 block area with a run-down business district at its core. There had been much strife between residents, businesses, and social service agencies in the area, and REACH spent many hours mediating to help the community identify common goals they could all embrace.
The Belmont area was experiencing rapid gentrification, and residents did not want to lose its affordability, diversity, and funky appeal. The Belmont Action Plan was crafted to improve safety and livability, while embracing the diversity of the area and helping existing residents (seniors and other low-income households) stay in their homes.
Concern for the condition of the business district was paramount. The vacancy rate was 16 percent, and one-sixth of the buildings were deteriorated. In door-to-door surveys, residents chose revitalization of the business district as the top priority for the neighborhood. REACH formed a committee of residents and businesses to develop a strategy to revitalize the Belmont business district. With the help of a well timed HUD technical assistance grant, and later a John Heinz Neighborhood Development grant, REACH was able to begin implementation of a focused business district revitalization strategy in 1995.
The Belmont Action Plan was implemented over a three-year period. The strategy aimed to: improve the district’s image, train small business owners, attract new businesses and customers, and provide funding and technical support for physical improvements. Now in its second year, the plan has brought positive results, including lower vacancies, new investment, and an increased sense of community. Business owners have worked together and with nearby residents on numerous projects, including a design charette, street fair, safety program, and district marketing strategy.
Investing in People
The REACH Five Year Plan also identified two new community building initiatives: the Community Builders and Community Leaders programs.
The Community Builders program began in an effort to help low-income elderly maintain their homes and their independence. The program also responds to the enormous increase in real estate prices in Portland. REACH also began to hear anecdotal evidence that rising prices and poor maintenance were forcing elderly homeowners out of their homes. While REACH staff knew renovating single-family and small multifamily homes had a very positive impact in the community, the organization could barely afford even the most decrepit buildings. Through The Community Builders, REACH stays active in renovating deteriorated houses without purchasing the property.
The Community Builders offers home repairs to seniors and other low-income owners using contract and volunteer labor. It builds on REACH’s successful “paint-a-thon” program – giant work days on which volunteers painted several homes in the community. REACH is also able to use its growing volunteer pool and leverage public and private grant dollars to spread the repairs further.
REACH began The Community Leaders program to help build leadership and independence among tenants. While REACH has always had a strong relationship with social service agencies in its buildings for the elderly, homeless, and mentally ill, it had been unable to find funding to support programs for other residents. A small grant in 1994 helped start the REACH Kids summer enrichment program. The program also led to an informal support group among REACH parents (primarily single-headed households). The success of the summer program helped us leverage funding for a year-round program, augmenting kids activities with activities for adults including the organization of tenant councils, skill-building sessions, and social activities. Still in its infancy, this program aims to provide residents with tools to gain greater economic self-sufficiency.
In working to support residents and improve its community, REACH still has much to learn. REACH anticipates several major challenges in the next few years. Welfare reform, the loss of Section 8 rent subsidies, and the loss of federal and local support for housing and community development programs face us daily. REACH staff will draw on the skills developed over the years and the lessons learned by other CDCs to navigate these obstacles and continue making a positive difference in southeast Portland.
*A version of the West Clinton Plan is available in Connections, Creating Urban Excellence, from the Bruner Foundation, Inc., 130 Prospect Street, Boston, MA 02139 (Back)