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More families, more students

City looks to increase enrollment by adding housing near schools

By summer 2008, the aging Iris Court public housing complex next to Jefferson High School in North Portland will be converted into a shining new affordable-housing development aimed at drawing families to the area.

Like a mini New Columbia, the new Humboldt Gardens is a revitalization project of the Housing Authority of Portland, which is known for utilizing partnerships with community organizations.

For instance, the Albina Head Start preschool program will be located at the site, and HAP will work with Portland Public Schools to encourage parents to send their kids to Humboldt Elementary, just down the block.

'We'll combine the housing and school planning strategy with family marketing strategy, aiming for the 'stroller set,' as they're called,' said HAP executive director Steve Rudman. 'A lot of it is just reaching out.'

In the same way, city Commissioner Erik Sten is working on a citywide effort to help families connect to Portland's neighborhood schools through affordable housing.

The school district is losing 300 to 500 students per year, which equates to an annual loss of $1.5 million to $2.5 million. Officials say it's due to the lack of affordable housing in the city's core, which pushes families out to the suburbs and outer Southeast Portland.

Sten's so-called 'schools, families and housing' initiative - under discussion today at a City Council work session - would create a web of partnerships that will develop housing and help raise enrollment at about half a dozen schools now dealing with declining enrollents.

One model is Humboldt Gardens, the $50 million federally funded HOPE VI project that will bring 101 two- and three-bedroom rental units for lower-income familes. It also will include 21 homes within a mile of the site priced for affordable sale.

The hope is to bring more students to Humboldt Elementary, at 4915 N. Gantenbein Ave., a largely black school that narrowly averted closure this year because of dwindling numbers.

By January, the City Council will identify other schools as target areas that could benefit from this type of development. They could include Lent Elementary, which struggles with a large immigrant population that moves frequently - in part because of housing affordability issues - and Rieke Elementary in Southwest, which is working on a plan to expand to at least 400 students to fill its building capacity.

Other parts of Sten's effort include better marketing of neighborhood schools by the district's Web site; for example, the district could tie the schools to information on home sales in Portland.

There could be incentives in the bid process for affordable housing developments that align with schools. There also could be outreach by groups like the Portland Schools Foundation and Portland Stand for Children, who would target groups like the fast-growing Latino population and the 'stroller set' of young couples who are starting to examine their children's school options.

The initiative would award small grants to parents and neighbors who volunteer in the schools but need more resources for specific efforts, such as surveying parents about what more they'd like to see at their neighborhood school; or doing multilingual outreach to families about housing options.

Finally, the initiative would provide funds for temporary rental assistance, a pool for second mortgages, improving school facilities and leveraging money for new housing development.

In total, the city could chip in between $5 million and $7 million in one-time money from its general fund for the entire package.

The city would partner with the nonprofit Enterprise Foundation, which is putting together models for leveraging city money with their assets.

Rich Rodgers, a Sten aide, sees much of the planning taking place over the next year, with some efforts taking much longer to pull together. 'We're not trying to create a whole new system here,' he said. 'We want to highlight efforts and lend strength to them.'

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