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Columbia Villa gives reason for hope

Happy New Year.

The deal is done.

The Housing Authority of Portland's plan to redevelop North Portland's Columbia Villa Ñ through a $35 million grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development Ñ is on course.

Between now and September, about 420 families from Columbia Villa Ñ the state's largest public-housing complex Ñ will be relocated within metro Portland. The housing authority will pick up the tab for all moving expenses. It also will compensate residents for any increase in rent and utility costs for up to six months after relocation.

A sweet deal for residents, right? Sure. But the whole story is shrouded in complexity.

Created by Congress in 1992, HUD's Hope VI program represents the federal government's most ambitious effort to address the lingering problem of severely distressed inner-city housing.

However, the program was built on a somewhat murky premise: Mixing low- and high-income families in a development helps improve the lives of the poor.

To achieve this, the Hope VI program combines job development with mechanisms aimed at improving social skills for public housing residents. Lately, some sites have broadened their rejuvenation focus beyond the original public housing mission to include neighborhood revitalization goals. So far, 165 revitalization grants totaling $4.5 billion have been awarded nationwide.

The sad part is that a long-standing side effect of Hope VI has been its propensity to reduce the amount of affordable housing stock shortly after redevelopment.

A report prepared by the National Housing Law Project Ñ a group critical of the program Ñ shows that as a result of the program, the number of public housing units available for those most in need has actually dwindled nationally.

Also troubling is the reoccupancy rate: The report showed that the number of tenants returning to the rebuilt projects ranged from 13 percent to 26 percent. At worst, barely one in six relocated families return to a revitalized development.

Worse still, there are no substantive regulations from HUD to guide the project development process, so developments are often conceived and developed with little or no advice from the community.

But the good news is that the local housing authority's revitalization plan Ñ at least on paper Ñ has the potential to correct some of the deficiencies found in other projects. The planning process began with a commendable dose of community involvement and a commitment to put residents' welfare first.

So far, the housing authority has made significant progress in involving the community and residents in all aspects of its predevelopment planning. Aside from Richard Ellmyer, a longtime activist and Portsmouth neighborhood resident who has been the project's most virulent critic, there is no known opposition. Neighbors seems to have adopted a wait-and-see attitude.

If executed correctly, the redevelopment represents a badly needed economic panacea for the Portsmouth neighborhood. Since 1960, Portsmouth has consistently had a high concentration of unemployment and a disproportionate number of households with income below the poverty level.

But the challenge will be in the execution. The housing authority will need constant coordination to reach many of its revitalization goals in an urban corridor already hampered by displacement and gentrification.

Contact Promise King at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .