Think Out Loud

After 9 years, Portland’s housing preference policy brings more than 100 homes to displaced residents

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
Feb. 22, 2024 10:01 p.m.

Broadcast: Friday, Feb. 23

In 2015, Portland created a groundbreaking policy to give preference for affordable housing and housing loans in historically Black neighborhoods to those who have been displaced from the areas. In 2018, a report found that just four households had been able to purchase homes using city loans. After a major overhaul, part of the contract for the city’s housing preference policy was handed to the Portland Housing Center. This week, the nonprofit celebrated five years and 110 homes that have been successfully purchased through the program. We check in on the policy with Dana Shepherd, executive director of Portland Housing Center, and Leslie Goodlow, equity business operations manager for the Portland Housing Bureau.


This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. In 2015, Portland created a groundbreaking policy. It gave preference for affordable housing and housing loans to people or families who had been displaced from the city’s historically Black neighborhoods. A report in 2018 found that just four households had been able to purchase homes through the program so the city pivoted and contracted with a nonprofit called the Portland Housing Center. This week, the nonprofit celebrated a milestone. Over the course of five years, 116 homes have been successfully purchased through the program. Dana Shepherd is the executive director of the Portland Housing Center. Leslie Goodlow is the equity and business operations manager for the Portland Housing Bureau. They both join me now. It’s great to have both of you on Think Out Loud.

Leslie Goodlow: Thank you. We’re happy to be here. Well, I can’t speak for Dana. I’m happy to be here.

Dana Shepherd: I am happy to be here, too.

Miller: [Laughter] I like your assumption that both of you are happy to be here. Leslie, I want to start with you. It’s been a little while since you and I talked about this. Can you remind us how the preference policy works? Who gets priority, who goes to the top of the list?

Goodlow: Sure. So the preference policy is based on geography and you get points based on where you’ve lived and where your parent, grandparent or guardian live in Portland. And so you can get up to three points for yourself and up to three points for your parent, grandparent or guardian or ancestor, for a total of six points. You could also get priority if your family had property taken by eminent domain. So those folks go to the top of the list. It’s a point system. Eminent domain is at the top, [then] six, five, four, three, two, one, zero.

Anybody can apply. Anybody can apply to get onto the list because this is a waiting list for opportunities as they arise. We have a rental waiting list and we have a homeownership waiting list which we’re planning to open within the next three or four weeks. Our homeownership list hasn’t opened since 2019.

Miller: I want to hear more about that because that is exciting news for a lot of people. But just to remind us of the program, as I noted in my intro, it got some push back in early years for being slow to get people into home ownership. You’ve now, I think, exceeded some goals. What were the challenges early on?

Goodlow: Dana will be able to speak to this because that’s what she does. And she was actually working for the Housing Bureau when we were going through this. I think there was an underestimation of the amount of time it would take someone to become ready to get a mortgage. We’ve had a lot of people that never even considered that they could be a homeowner, that they’re first-generation homeowners in their families. So it just takes more time than we initially thought it was going to take. I’ll let Dana jump in, because again, that’s her bailiwick and that’s her expertise.

Miller: Well, Dana, can you give us a sense of the work that you and the team at the Portland Housing Center do, with somebody who’d fall into that category that Leslie just mentioned, who would be a first-generation homeowner in their family? What are the issues you deal with? And what kind of help do you provide?

Shepherd: I would say the preference policy by design is to help and assist folks that have been marginalized. Therefore, when people actually come to Portland Housing Center or any of the organizations for counseling and education, sometimes they don’t even picture themselves as homeowners. A lot of times they’ve never even heard anything about the banks. There’s a lot of times where they likely have but have bad experiences as well and don’t want to reenter or traumatize themselves again. So it is our responsibility as a HUD-approved counseling agency and an agency that cares very deeply about the community to support people wherever they are, for whatever it is that they need, especially when it comes to finances and budgeting. What we’re trying to do is just provide some financial literacy for folks. We’re trying to make sure that people have a solid team in order to execute the real regulatory space of homeownership. So that’s what we are trying to do. That’s what we’re here for.

Miller: What does this look like through a culturally specific lens?

Shepherd: Sure, Portland Housing Center, I can say, provides a culturally specific course called getting your house in order. It is exclusively for Black and African American households, taught by folks that are Black or African American. We have a couple of different culturally specific courses that are available. They’re actually considered gold standard and adopted nationally. But what it means is that different ethnicities, different racial groups, look at money, have different experiences with money and financial institutions so that safe space is very much necessary.

Miller: Leslie, this policy is and has always been race neutral, officially race neutral. That’s because of long standing laws, you cannot take race into account when you’re making decisions like this at the city-level about housing. But even so, I’m wondering if there was fear after the Supreme Court’s recent ruling striking down affirmative action in college admissions, that that would somehow increase scrutiny on this program?

Goodlow: Yeah. So when that happened there were lots of meetings. We spent a great deal of time in meetings with city attorneys, with fair housing attorneys, talking about programming at the city and how we can continue to fulfill the city’s core values of diversity and inclusion and equity. And so the model that they gave was the preference policy, that city attorneys were talking to other bureaus, other departments, other divisions within the city, saying this is the model because it is race neutral.

Miller: That’s fascinating. So in other words, you had already arrived at a solution that follows the letter of the law and even that is absolutely legal under the Supreme Court’s recent ruling, but still actually accomplishes something to redress racial inequities that go back decades?

Goodlow: Yes, because we based it on geography and we used census data to determine which areas had had the most significant gentrification and displacement. We look from 1970 to 2010 and you can see the changing demographics of the Interstate Corridor in inner Northeast Portland from primarily or majority Black neighborhoods, to very few Black and Brown people or people of any color being moved out of Northeast Portland because it was the only place that poor people could live. So you see this huge migration of folks out of Northeast Portland. So we knew by the geography that we chose, that we were going to capture the population that we were really trying to support. Whether they were Black, whether they were Hispanic, whether they were Asian, whether they were white. We wanted to ensure that people that had generational ties to Northeast Portland had the opportunity to move back, if that’s what they wanted.

Miller: Dana Shepherd, we were talking earlier about the work that you do at the Portland Housing Center to get people into homes, to help them buy homes. What about helping them to stay in those homes, to make homeownership work in a lasting way? I mean, is that part of your job?


Shepherd: It is part of our job. We’ve recently launched a program called the post-purchase program that particularly is so that we can continue to provide support for folks just entering into homeownership. So what that means is that we are referring households over to a partner organization, African American Alliance for Homeownership, for wills and estate planning. We also have a partnership with a couple of other local nonprofit agencies for home repairs. We will be tapping into the city’s program for home repair because the Housing Bureau has the home retention program as well. So that absolutely is what we’re trying to do.

However, I can say even before this post-purchase program, it was one of the things discussed from the North/Northeast Oversight Committee just making sure that continued support was available to folks even after homeownership. But we have launched that program just this year.

Miller: Leslie Goodlow, we’ve been focusing on home ownership so far. But, as I mentioned briefly, your program also focuses on affordable rentals and the numbers there seem really daunting. According to a recent report in August, there were 36 vacancies, almost 400 people applied for them and out of those 400 people for the 36 spots, only one person was approved. I should say that that month stands out among the most recent three months in that report. It was the worst but none of the months seemed particularly good in terms of either the number of approvals or the number of spots, compared to the number of people who wanted them.

Can you give us a big picture sense of what the rental program looks like to you right now?

Goodlow: So there’s a couple of factors that go into whether the number of people that get into units. The first thing is what size unit they are waiting for. So if those 36 units that were available were studios and one bedrooms which I don’t know, I don’t have that data on the top of my head, and the 400 people that they called were looking for larger units, which a lot of folks that are on our list are looking for two or three bedroom units, then they would have passed on the unit.

Another factor, particularly for Black and African American folks, is just the low incomes that we are seeing across the population. The average income for Black and African American folks, while it has increased since 2017, it’s still significantly lower than the average white household. The average Black family is making about $48,000 a year. The average white family is making over $70,000 a year. And then when you look at the rent at 60%, we have folks that don’t qualify at a 60% rent, but they make too much money for a 30% rent. So they’re stuck in the middle between 30% and 60%, so they won’t qualify for either unit.

That’s one of the things that the oversight committee is going to be talking with the City Council about this year, is how do we make these units more accessible? The policy in the city right now is 30% or 60% units. We don’t do an averaging, we don’t do 40% or 50% units. And that’s a city policy, but it is impacting the ability of the targeted population, folks who have been displaced, to be able to move back into the neighborhood and into these units. So those are the two biggest factors that I’ve seen: one, what size units are available, and two, the incomes of people that are on the list don’t meet the criteria for a 30% or 60% unit.

Miller: And I should point out that according to one of your recent reports, this isn’t just about people who are trying to get into apartments. It’s a serious issue for people who are in them right now. As of October, 39% of residents in one apartment building, the Charlotte B. Rutherford, had unpaid rent. That was in a recent report.

Goodlow: Yes.

Miller: Dana Shepherd, to just look at the big picture here, if I’m not mistaken, you grew up in Portland. I’m curious what it’s been like for you to work on this program in particular, what it’s meant to you.

Shepherd: It means everything. I’m completely indebted to my community and I have family homes that have gone up for sale that we can never get back. And when I look back at how much they were sold for and what they’re being used for now, it’s disheartening. It’s disheartening. When I think about why we sold or what we thought was a good reason at the time and why we sold.

It’s really good to see the changes in the neighborhood. It’s disheartening to not be able to feel that while myself, my family, my friends and my community were in the neighborhood. So I actually was displaced for about 18 years, East Portland, only returned about 10 years ago. So it’s been hard to settle yourself back in sometimes, but the neighborhood has still been the neighborhood because we still will travel back to where our roots are.

So it is very much bittersweet and it’s been hard to see how and why it came to this. However, I’m indebted to my community and very, very much want to continue being a part of the work, which is why eight years, I was at the Portland Housing Bureau, managing the homeownership and home retention programs and responsible for the homeownership goals of the strategy, to now coming to Portland Housing Center to lead this organization to continue doing this work with these families.

Miller: Leslie the last time, as you noted, that you accepted applications for new homes through this policy was 2019. When might you do it again? And how many units might be available? And what can we expect?

Goodlow: So, we have been meeting with our development partners on three homeownership projects that we are funding out of both interstate tax increment financing and some of the Metro bond funds. And we believe we’re going to be able to open the homeownership list about mid-March. That’s our goal. It’ll be open for about four weeks for people to be able to apply. We’re going to have some information sessions–those are not scheduled yet–where people can come and hear about the projects that are being built as well as we do have down payment assistance available.

Our oversight committee, on Tuesday, approved increasing the down payment assistance per person or per home purchaser to up to $150,000, which is to help people be able to buy in Interstate because the prices have grown so significantly since we started this project. In 2015, the average home sales price in Interstate has grown by almost $300,000. So that money can only be spent on Interstate. And when you’re looking at home prices going from $300,000 to almost $600,000 and you make 80% of AMI, it’s very tough to get a mortgage that you can afford. Those loans have no interest, no payments, [and] 10% has to go to some kind of home improvement, which that part is a grant, and they are forgivable. So after 15 years, it’s 50% forgiven and then 3% per year after that.

We’re very excited to open the list to get more people working with Portland Housing Center, getting them prepared for these three opportunities. Carey Boulevard will have 50 homes on it. We’re going to be building a community on that property that we purchased from the Water Bureau. We have the Abbey Site in conjunction with the Strong property. CDP and SEI will be the community partners building there and that will have six to eight units. Then, as Dana was talking about last night, the Williams and Russell site will have 20 town homes that will be available for folks to purchase, two and three bedrooms.

All of these houses that we’re building will be family size, two or three bedrooms. The Carey Boulevard site will also have some four-bedroom units. So we’re really trying to build for families and have ADA compatibility. So we have at least two units on the Carey site that will be single floor with wheelchair accessible, multigenerational units for purchase. So we’re probably looking at between 90-100 opportunities between now and the end of 2028

Miller: Leslie Goodlow, thanks very much for joining us.

Goodlow: You’re very welcome.

Miller: Leslie Goodlow and Dana Shepherd were our guests. Leslie Goodlow is the equity and business operations manager for the Portland Housing Bureau. Dana Shepherd, executive director of the Portland Housing Center.

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