A 60-unit permanent supportive housing community for people exiting homelessness held its grand opening this week. The Hattie Redmond Apartments are located in Portland’s Kenton neighborhood in North Portland and was designed for those with disabilities who request access to culturally specific services within the Black community. We hear more about the housing and its programs from Nkenge Harmon Johnson, the president and CEO of the Urban League of Portland which co-developed the apartments.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. For the first time, the Urban League of Portland has partnered with Home Forward to co-develop a new supportive housing complex. The 60 unit Hattie Redmond Departments in North Portland’s Kenton neighborhood had their grand opening yesterday. The building was designed for people with disabilities who request access to culturally specific services within the Black community. Nkenge Harmon Johnson is the president and CEO of the Urban League of Portland, and she joins us now. Nkenge, welcome back.
Nkenge Harmon Johnson: Thank you, Dave, it’s great to be back.
Miller: How did this partnership come to be?
Harmon Johnson: I’ve been at the Urban League now eight years, it’ll be eight years tomorrow. And I never like to say that we’re doing something for the first time because the Urban League was 70 years old when I was fortunate enough to become its president. And over the years we’ve done different things. But for this iteration, this generation of Urban Leaguers, we started our housing program seven years ago. And it became clear pretty early on, Dave, that the Urban League was going to need to really dig deep to create housing units for people in our community. There aren’t enough apartment rentals available, homes to purchase are sky high and difficult to get your hands on, especially if you don’t have a big down payment available. And landlords continue to discriminate against African Americans. And unfortunately, our state and our city in Portland don’t enforce fair housing rules. So the Urban League knew that we had to approach this from a number of different sides.
I’ll fast forward a little bit to say that Home Forward is Portland’s housing authority. It’s the biggest affordable housing developer in our city, as it should be. And we knew that over the years, Home Forward has not done enough to serve African Americans. We also knew that there would be many opportunities coming up to build new affordable housing because of the Metro housing bond. So we got together with Home Forward and said “hey, is there a partnership here?” Is there something that we can put together that will allow the Urban League to build the kind of housing that we know our community needs, and also to provide the services for those residents so that we can have ongoing sustainable support in our community, in a way that we have not seen it, perhaps ever?
Miller: What were the challenges, given that this is the first time that your nonprofit has done a project like this?
Harmon Johnson: Well, I want to be careful when I say that. This is the first time that my generation of the Urban League has done a project like this.
Miller: But was there something like a supportive housing apartment building that was built in the past?
Harmon Johnson: Well, here’s the thing, I don’t know. I can tell you that the Urban League has owned dozens and dozens of units of housing in the past. We own buildings in various properties. And our model of culturally specific supportive housing is a part of an Urban League tradition, quite frankly. Now, we will take credit for updating that model supremely and making it new again. And this building is, to my knowledge Dave, the first of its kind. But I’m always really careful about that, because when an organization is this old and has been so dynamic over the years, I don’t want to mistakenly take credit as being the first and someone will tell me “no, back in 1975 we did X, Y and Z.”
Miller: Okay, point taken. But for your generation, for our generation, what were the challenges?
Harmon Johnson: First, I told my team from the beginning that we’re going to develop property. We’re not simply going to show up as a service provider, which has really been the model that our community is used to. In fact, that’s how it works all across the country. The housing authority builds a building, and then they have a social service provider bid to decide who’s going to deliver services to the people who live in that building.
Miller: Why was that important to you? Why did you want to have a hand in the design or the creation of this housing?
Harmon Johnson: For a number of reasons. One, I am fortunate enough to have learned from the example of Maxine Fitzpatrick, who was the founding executive director of PCRI, and one of the titans of affordable housing in our state and in our region. I went to an affordable housing property that Maxine opened several years ago, and it was lovely Dave. A townhome that I would have been pleased to have a member of my family living in. And I said “Maxine, this doesn’t look like affordable housing.” She says “Yeah, housing for poor people doesn’t have to look poor.” That stuck with me.
And I looked around at other properties that are being developed in different parts of the city, and I said “what’s so different about what Maxine does versus what those other folks were doing?” The expensive parts are the foundation, the roof, the plumbing, the electrical, all those parts. Picking pleasing paint colors, using trauma informed design techniques, making sure there’s plenty of light and spaces that are really usable for the people who are gonna be building community there, those kinds of things are what the Urban League already knows how to do. And it was important because the people who will be living in this building for the next well over the next couple of generations need to have a place that feels like home, not merely a place that’s simply inside or that makes them feel institutionalized. That’s not a way to be healthy, it’s not a way to be happy, and it’s certainly not a way to build a stable community.
Miller: What’s an example of a trauma informed design technique?
Harmon Johnson: Oh, so glad you asked. Yesterday when we had our grand opening, we let folks tour the facility. We had a couple of apartments that were available for folks to see how they’re laid out. And they’re small, these are studios. They’ve got the full bathrooms and full kitchens and an area for sleeping and a bit of dining or resting. But they are small units. The ceilings, however, are high. And the windows are large. So it makes the spaces feel much more spacious than you would otherwise feel in an apartment of this size developed elsewhere. That’s one example of a trauma informed design technique.
Another has to do with the way that we’ve placed the common areas. We’ve got green spaces just outside that allow folks to feel as though they’re in a living room or a familial setting when they want to spend some time in those spaces, rather than having it be- well, let me give you an example. The Urban League rents space from Multnomah County over on Martin Luther King Boulevard for our senior services program. Dave, we’ve been there for years, and it’s the Urban League’s longest continually operating program. There are no windows in that space. So while we do dynamic programming for our senior citizens just about every day in there, and Meals on Wheels also operates in that space, there’s piano and crochet and you can do tai chi in that space, what you can’t do is sit next to a window and look outside. It’s absolutely the opposite of the kind of space that the Urban League would choose to help serve our seniors. And the Hattie Redmond is the opposite of that. Does that make sense?
Miller: It does.
You mentioned the name again. Can you tell us about the namesake of this new building, Hattie Redmond?
Harmon Johnson: Sure. The late great Hattie Redmond was a Black suffragist, and she was a civil rights leader in Oregon. She moved to Oregon with her family in 1868. She was just a little girl, just six years old. And she made Oregon her home at a time when Black folks were not welcome, and in fact often prohibited from living here. And not only did she make Oregon her home, but she became a connected Portlander, who organized other folks to advocate for voting rights, and to fight against the anti-Black racist laws that were prohibiting other Black people from living in Oregon. She was a very special, wise woman, and we’re really delighted that we’re able to honor her, and that more folks can learn about her name and her work through naming this building the Hattie Redmond.
Miller: How did you decide to focus specifically on people with disabilities?
Harmon Johnson: The Urban League is a real special organization in that we are who we serve. Not only do we come from the community that we serve, but those community members come to us and let us know what issues and concerns and challenges they have. And it’s well known at this point that African Americans are overrepresented in the houseless population in Portland and in Oregon. And a big chunk of those folks are disabled in some way. We have found that even folks who are on disability, who have some resources of their own coming in every month, they’re falling farther and farther behind, and continuing to wind up on the street because even though they have some resources, rents are just too high. And so there’s this population of disabled folks, there’s a population of older folks, who are finding themselves living on the streets. We knew that as the Urban League, that was a group that we could wrap our arms around to move them indoors quickly, and to help them build community that would feel like home so they could then begin to become stable and live out the rest of their lives.
Miller: I imagine that there’s more demand for these kinds of units than there are units. How does the selection process work?
Harmon Johnson: Yeah, of course there are, there are hundreds more people that would like to move into these units. In fact, I was getting personal phone calls yesterday from people saying “how can I get in, how can my cousin get in?” Which is heartbreaking because we’ve got 60 units and they’re already halfway full, and they will be completely full within weeks.
The way that folks find out about them or engage with them with the process is contacting the Urban League. And many folks have already done so, they’re a part of our housing program, they’re one of our program participants who maybe we engaged with when they were houseless, and we were visiting them in a tent or visiting them when they were sleeping in their car and trying to provide them resources that way. And they’ve sort of been in line already. Other folks have found us more recently and have been able to say I’ve been on this waitlist, and I want African American culture specific services for my permanent supportive housing placement. I would please like to be in the Hattie Redmond line. So it’s a fairly simple process. But the hard part is that there are so many people who desperately would like to dwell in a building like this.
Miller: The grand opening was yesterday as we’ve been talking about, but the building actually opened a month ago. What have you heard from the first residents about what it has meant for them to live there?
Harmon Johnson: Oh, goodness, this is the best part, it really is. I spoke to a resident yesterday, Mr Coleman. He was there throughout the entire event, he was dressed up and ready to go. And he told me, first of all, “thank you for your team, they are great and they are responsive and they were very helpful.” But I heard him say that he’d been homeless for 15 years, living in a car or couch surfing and sometimes outside, for a very long time because he had been disabled and not able to earn enough income to pay the increasing rent to the area. And when he got with the Urban League team, he was treated with respect. He was honored, he was appreciated, and he felt that instantly. And it was not his experience in dealing with other organizations. And we were able to move him inside to a place that he now loves. He said it’s been only a short time, but when he walked into his apartment and knew that it was his, it felt like the whole world because he had a space of his own that will be his. He doesn’t have to look over his shoulder every month to figure out if the rent’s going up and if he can still afford to stay there. And he said that he’s happy, and he feels stable, and he feels respected. And he is looking forward to being able to give some of that back to his community. And Dave, my hands are almost shaking as I talk about it, because it’s only been a month. And he’s already had this life changing experience working with the team and living in his new home at the Hattie.
Miller: How has this experience over the last seven years now affected the way you think about the Portland area’s current approach to homelessness?
Harmon Johnson: Oh boy, that’s a great question. I wish more folks knew what I now know, which is we can fix this. We can move people off the streets and inside of doors. This is not some insurmountable problem. Quite literally seven years ago at the Urban League, I said “we’re gonna do this.” And so we just started. We’d been advocating before city council to say “hey, homelessness rate for Black folks has gone way up.” The city said “no, no, no, we don’t see that reflected.” Finally, we got a point in time count that showed that Black folks were homeless increasingly often. And the city said, “oh my goodness!” under Mayor Hales, “We need to fund this project” that we had brought to them. And so for a little less than $100,000, we began the Urban League of Portland’s housing program to begin reaching out to folks who are on the streets.
Fast forward to 2019. I said “okay, people are talking about it but they’re not building enough units, and bricks and sticks is what matters. The Urban League is gonna become a developer.” And my team, the leaders, Julia Delgado, Denetta Monk, both of whom are social workers, said to me “you know we’re social workers, right? We don’t know how to build housing.” And I told them “That’s ok. The other folks are doing an awful lot of talking about it. I think we can learn how to do this, and be just as good as they are at it. In fact, better.” Here we are, opening the Hattie Redmond simply because some social workers, a lawyer like me, decided that we could do it. And we went out and made it happen. Dave, that’s through a pandemic and all of that.
Meanwhile, many a politician is busy talking about “We should fund tent cities! We should do temporary housing options!” If those same people would simply buckle their boots and get busy, they could be helping us build housing or building it themselves. It’s simply not that hard when you decide to get it done. I wish more people would simply decide to get it done instead of vilifying people who live on the streets.
Miller: Nkenge Harmon Johnson, thanks very much.
Harmon Johnson: Dave, it’s been great to be with you. Thanks for helping us celebrate.
Miller: Nkenge Harmon Johnson is the president and CEO of the Urban League of Portland. Yesterday they had the grand opening for a new 60-unit supportive housing building in North Portland that they co-developed with the agency, Home Forward.
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