A North Portland church’s scrappy bid to help solve our ‘tentlandia’ crisis will need to overcome red tape to succeed

435 faith-based properties in Portland offer potential alternative to government-aligned affordable housing’s slow, pricey pipeline

Rendering of the Portsmouth Union Church project, as seen at https://portsmouthunionchurch.org/affordable-housing.

Since 2016, Portland area voters have voted to fund two affordable housing bonds totaling $911.2 million.

But with per-unit affordable housing costing $250,000 or higher on the West Coast, all that money is only enough to build or preserve maybe five or six thousand housing units—even with last year’s passage of Measure 102, which gives governments more flexibility in how they use the money.

And it’ll likely take to be a decade or more before new units are ready to rent.

“If we keep doing affordable housing the way we’re doing it right now, our arc is on solving this problem never,” says Marshall Runkel, chief of staff for Portland City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly.

Faith-based communities control game-changing amounts of land in Portland : 435 properties averaging nearly an acre (about a city block) apiece, according to a city official.

But faith communities have historically steered clear of diving into what Runkel calls the “black box” of affordable housing. For many, conditional use permits, building codes, transportation laws, construction code regs and such can be enough to deter the most determined of leaders.

Now, two co-pastors who lead a tiny church in North Portland are developing their own 20-unit complex, at a far lower price point than government standards, and forgoing developer fees. A well-known private sector developer of affordable housing, Rob Justus, calls Rev. Julia Nielsen and co-pastor Andy Goebel “trail blazers.”

Nielsen and Goebel are optimistic, with a can-do attitude and determination forged by years of ministering to unhoused people and people experiencing poverty.

They also liken their project’s battles against bureaucracy to a car crash.

“We’re kind of the first through the windshield on this,” Nielsen says. “[But] it needs to go beyond sitting and talking about how bad it is, into doing something.”
Rendering of the Portsmouth Union Church project, as seen at https://portsmouthunionchurch.org/affordable-housing.

There are 6,000 homeless people in the metro area, a 2018 ECONorthwest study found—the visible tip of an iceberg comprised of 125,000 households in the region defined as “very low income” by HUD. 56,000 of those receive no assistance and pay more than half their income for housing and/or live in inadequate housing, meaning they are one bad day away from joining tentlandia themselves.

We Portland residents see it each and every day: new tents, shanties and tarp-a-ma-jigs holding new faces, carrying new sorrows. That’s why what -Nielsen and co-pastor Andy Goebel are doing could carry a significance far greater than the project’s tiny size.

Goebel, left, and Nielsen, right. Photo by Thacher Schmid.

In a word, what they are doing is showing courage.

In a development that owes as much to Portland’s legendary D-I-Y ethos as their faith or Nielsen’s experience working for NW Housing Alternatives, they are developing the $3 million affordable housing project with $1.8 debt service from Beneficial State Bank, an African American institution formerly known as Albina Community Bank, plus a $70,000 grant from Meyer Memorial Trust. Half of the 20 units will be one-bedroom, half will be two.

A little free consulting help by Rob Justus’ Home First Development, a partnership with Oregon Community Alliance of Tenants and a connection to Runkel—a longtime observer of city politics former aide to progressive Portland official Erik Sten—doesn’t hurt.

The church is located on the corner of North Lombard Street and North Fiske Avenue, a few blocks west of Columbia Park in Portland’s Portsmouth neighborhood. It’s not far south of Oregon’s largest mixed-income public housing community, New Columbia, where I once worked in resident services.

It’s a diverse neighborhood, with a lot to be proud of, and a lot of challenges: on a Census tract map of the city, it’s the darkest brown color, the highest-poverty zone on the St. Johns peninsula. Nielsen and Goebel have in the past offered winter warming homeless shelter on the property — they say they were the only North Portland emergency warming shelter for six years until construction made that impossible last winter.

Goebel’s former ministry also offered a “homeless church” on Sundays for 20 to 30 people at Columbia Way and Macrum, he says.

The neighborhood is also, like virtually the entire metro area, subject to an ongoing “gentrification” process. “We’ve got people in our community who have been priced out,” Goebel says.

“One family, the closed they could get in [to housing] was Sheridan,” Nielsen adds.

That’s more than 50 miles away.

As of April, Nielsen says, the project is moving toward construction and has a project manager and general contractor.

So far, though, it’s been rough: the combined bureaucratic edifice of city, state and federal rules and laws has made progress exceedingly slow and cumbersome. Nielsen, 37, and Goebel, 42, are forgoing developing government-subsidized housing because required eligibility policies would prevent them from reserving spots for members of their congregation.

Nonetheless, partly because Lombard is a state highway, owned by the Oregon Dept. of Transportation, there are multiple, overlapping sets of rules that apply to their development.

“You cross a hurdle with [Portland Bureau of Transportation], and then you find yourself in [Oregon Dept. of Transportation] land,” Nielsen says.

City “connectivity” policy means developments have to improve infrastructure — with big fees attached. Officials, the pair say, have at various times demanded a new traffic light, alley widening, a sewer line move of three feet, a new bus stop, sidewalks and curb cuts. Lenders want guarantors with deep pockets. The church has had to subdivide and rezone.

“This is not for the faint of heart,” explains Nielsen, hardly an affordable housing newbie—she’s worked for NW Housing Alternatives. “I have cried so many times over this project.”

“My tears are filled with rage,” Goebel adds.

When Nielsen, Goebel, the architect and he met with the city for an early assistance meeting, recalls Justus, developer at Home First Development, city planners said “well, if you want to do this, here’s sort of this convoluted process.”

“Right off the bat they sort of stopped us in our tracks,” Justus recalls.

Part of that, he said, was a mandated new traffic light on the corner (they later backed off the idea).

“What does that have to do with our building?” Justus asked.

If Portsmouth weren’t a church, Justus says, “they could go straight to doing a building permit.”

The property where the church’s 20-unit development will go. In the back is the church, which demolished a significant portion of its footprint to make way for the housing. Photo by Thacher Schmid.

Nielsen and Goebel are forgoing their development fee on the project, Justus says. Typically such fees are around 10 percent, so Goebel and Nielsen are saving the project more than $300,000, Justus said. The price divided by units translates to a per-unit cost of $150,000, far less than what government-aligned affordable housing costs. Justus added in an interview in October that he hadn’t charged a fee for his work on the project.

Nielsen and Goebel plan to hire a property management company to rent one- and two-bedroom apartments at rates affordable to people making 60 percent of area median income. They are partnering with Community Alliance of Tenants to build a tenant union, Nielsen says.

The rent, they expect, will be around $700 or so per month for a one-bedroom. It’s almost certainly too much for some of the unhoused people who have stayed in the church’s winter warming shelter or slept on church property. Still, it’s far below the HUD-identified fair market rate of $1,132 for Portland, and about half of online sources that quote a $1,330 market rate.

A huge part of the reason the Portsmouth Union Church project matters has nothing to do with government, and everything to do with the land owned by the metro area’s hundreds of faith-based communities.

And the fact that many of those communities are aging, or shrinking.

And the commitment—and determination—shown by some spiritual leaders in prioritizing social justice.

Goebel and Nielsen’s “Union” congregation represents a merger of two smaller communities, they say; each was threatened with the possibility of losing their home, or even ceasing to exist.

The mortgage for Portsmouth Union’s property, like that of many churches, is fully paid off. Meanwhile, many Christian congregations are shrinking in size.

Pastor Melissa Reed of the Leaven Community and Salt and Light Lutheran Church in Northeast Portland believes many of Portland’s Christian communities are at a “turning point.”

“What is the future of the church? We know it needs to look like something different,” Reed says. Reed is helping to build a coalition of faith-based groups to help solve the metro area’s housing and homelessness crisis, she says. Its first cohort, just now gathering steam, will have eight faith-based communities.

“If housing is such a core issue for this city and state, and for the people that exist within our congregations and also the neighborhoods that our congregations exist within, what does it look like to redevelop it in ways that have meaning?” Reed asks.

“We have an asset. So what are we called to do with that as people of faith? Once it’s on the market it’s gone.”
Nielsen and Goebel on the property where their development will go, at the corner of North Lombard Street and North Fiske Avenue. Photo by Thacher Schmid.

One 20-unit development doesn’t do much for anybody outside of the church next door, perhaps. But what about 435 developments?

In cities like Portland where land prices are high, faith-based communities control game-changing amounts of land. According to an official at the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, who spoke on background, a recent Portland study found 435 faith-based communities whose holdings average nearly an acre (about a city block) apiece.

The number for the four-county metro area could be double or triple that number. A similar study is being discussed in Seattle.

The city official said the bureau got a grant from Metro “specifically to look for opportunities for affordable housing on land owned by faith communities.” Part of the project, which has received little attention in the press, looks at “roadblocks to development” and “streamlin[ing] the city processes.”

Pastor Reed says she is trying to centralize a relationship-based approach that brings in lenses of diversity and equity and seeks to build an interfaith movement.

“Our spiritualities can move us together,” Reed says. “ I have a dream that the faith community has enough power to shift the housing crisis in the city of Portland.”

Reed says the Leaven community on NE Killingsworth, which has a large parking lot on its property, is itself contemplating an affordable housing development. “We want to put some skin in the game,” she says.

Is it a strange project for faith-based communities to move into what seems like a very different realm, affordable housing?

“No, I would disagree with that,” Reed says. “I would say churches have always been very much a part of shifting systems, for better or worse.”

One national expert on faith-based affordable housing, Dr. Jill Shook, says Nielsen, Goebel, Reed and other faith-based leaders developing their own affordable housing have their work cut out for them. She “highly” recommends faith-based communities not become their own developer.

Told that that’s exactly what Nielsen and Goebel are doing, she paused.

“That’s amazing,” Dr. Shook says.

Nielsen, left, and Goebel, right, with the bell tower of their church. They demolished the portion of the church building that held the bell tower to make way for the affordable housing project they’re calling Bell Tower LLC. Photo by Thacher Schmid.

“There’s very few revenue streams that come back to churches,” she says.

Dr. Shook notes that economies of scale call for “a certain number of units, usually between 50 and 70,” and says many faith-based affordable housing projects have to rely on government subsidies, which Nielsen and Goebel’s Portsmouth project does not.

“Why would you try to kill yourself doing this yourself rather than partner?” Dr. Shook asks.

Well, Nielsen, Goebel and Reed are, in fact, partnering, though they’re managing the development themselves.

“Faith communities in general are really well-positioned for this,” Nielsen says. “Against all expectations, we’re trying to put our neighbors first.”

If, as a knowledgable observer in Runkel puts it, our current arc is on solving this problem “never,” then bold new approaches are called for. The sheer scale of the housing and homeless crisis in Portland and across Oregon, which has the second-highest rate of unsheltered homelessness in the U.S.—and the highest prevalence of mental illness in the nation three years in a row—calls for “all hands on deck,” and for city, state and federal authorities to try to streamline their sometimes onerous processes.

It’s not clear whether that will happen.

“Despite spending more on affordable housing in Portland, San Francisco and Seattle, the problems are not getting better; they’re getting worse,” says Runkel. “The advocates just want us to shovel money at this problem.”

“We need to adapt,” says Runkel, who notes that the city is considering policy changes for projects like Portsmouth’s.

Of course, all that bureaucracy came into being for some very good reasons: creating safety in transportation or housing and ensuring equitable approaches in the world of affordable housing, not the least of them.

If she had a magic wand, Dr. Shook says, she would:

“Change some of the HUD rules and tax credit rules so that churches would be allowed to have some of the people from their own congregation be guaranteed that they would be able to live on that property. Right now there’s not a lot of benefits for a church to partner.”

Until that happens, Goebel and Nielsen say they’re learning how to build affordable housing from the ground up, and hope to teach others.

“Good stuff is happening!” Nielsen says.

Disclosure: The author’s wife is part of Leaven and Salt and Light. The author is Buddhist, not Christian, however, and this idea came from a different source.

This story was developed and pitched, unsuccessfully, to media outlets in late 2018, so it’s being written for no pay with no fact-checkers. If you see an error, want to request a change or have a story idea, email thachmid [at] gmail.com.