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The Morrison mix

City’s housing experiment puts low earners next to ex-homeless, upscale condos
by: TRIBUNE PHOTOS, The taller Civic has condos for sale, but at the Morrison (foreground, with courtyard), rents are very low for formerly homeless tenants and slightly subsidized for working-class people who don’t make much money.

Travis Howe has this problem. It’s not a big one — more of a situation, really. Three weeks ago, the 23-year-old Howe, who recently graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in international marketing, was living with his parents in Gresham, where he grew up. Howe hopes to go to law school — eventually. For now, Howe says, he would be satisfied with a job at an eco-friendly company. But not one that pays too much. That’s the problem. Howe is among the first wave of apartment dwellers at the Morrison, the city’s newest subsidized housing building, on West Burnside Street, a few blocks west of downtown. City housing officials and developers recognize the Morrison is part of a significant social engineering experiment. Ninety-five of the Morrison’s 140 subsidized units are available at below market rates — $695 for the one-bedroom unit that Howe rents. But there is another type of housing at the Morrison — 45 of its apartments are offered nearly rent-free to the chronically homeless. And that is a mix that hasn’t been tried before. In fact, the entire development next to PGE Park, of which the Morrison is a part, is something of an experiment in bridging the gaps that normally exist between people. The Morrison was built as part of one overall project that includes the Civic condominiums next door, where most units have sold for between $250,000 and $600,000. The Morrison and the Civic are the type of experiment — sometimes criticized — that is happening in public housing in cities across the country, according to Robert Bruegmann, a professor of urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Bruegmann calls it “high-level social engineering in a top-down way.” But experiments can fail, Bruegmann and others point out. If the 45 previously homeless tenants in the Morrison — most with histories of substance abuse or mental illness — prove to be difficult tenants, the building, which opened in November, won’t long retain its value as the new jewel among Portland affordable housing properties. And if the Morrison should lose luster, it could affect property values in the condominiums next door. The Housing Authority of Portland, which built and runs the Morrison, is well- aware of the risk. In fact, as originally planned, the Morrison had as its tenants a broad range of subsidized units that did not include the chronically homeless. When the housing authority found it did not have money to complete the Morrison, it went to the city, which agreed to put up the last $3 million on the condition the building put aside apartments for the homeless. “Nobody has really done this,” says Benjamin Wickham, asset manager for the housing authority, of placing housing for the homeless next to high-end condos. College grads pick part time Travis Howe doesn’t sense any risk — he’s ecstatic with his one-bedroom apartment at the Morrison. “I feel alive again,” he says of living blocks from downtown. Howe, who is single, says he is able to pay his $695 with money from his part-time modeling career. “It’s paid off my college, my Land Rover, and it pays my rent,” Howe says. Full-time work would suit Howe, but he says he doesn’t want to exceed the $28,500 income limit that would force him out of the Morrison. He calls this period of his life his “mental break” before a career or law school. If he weren’t able to live at the Morrison, he says, he’d probably go back to Gresham and live with his parents awhile, saving up money. Seattle native Nick Martinez has been living at the Morrison about as long as Howe. He recently graduated from Willamette University in Salem. He’s working part time behind the counter at Banana Republic, and he’s looking for a job downtown in either public relations or journalism. Martinez, 23, says the Morrison’s location is ideal for his downtown job hunt. Martinez wants full-time work, but if it is going to put him over the $28,500 income ceiling for staying at the Morrison, he wants it to be a lot more than he’s making now. Otherwise, he says, it’s hardly worth it to earn a little more and spend it on higher rent at a market-rate apartment building. “I really don’t think I would move out for anything less than $40,000,” Martinez says. Will the mix work? Martinez says that if he hadn’t secured a one-bedroom apartment at the Morrison, he could have found a market-rate studio apartment for about the same rent. He’s especially pleased with the mix of people at the Morrison. “This is the most eclectic group of people living in one building I’ve ever experienced,” he says. But the government’s subsidizing that eclectic mix is bad public policy and won’t work, according to Howard Husock, vice president of the conservative think tank Manhattan Institute and author of a book critical of traditional public housing policies. Husock says that in the long run, working-class people leave public housing to the poor. “Middle-class people with prospects and income will move into these places when they’re new,” Husock says. “They moved into (20th century) public housing when it was new. When it started to become hard to maintain they moved out. Things look good when you cut the ribbon.” Steve Rudman, executive director of the Housing Authority, says the alternative to mixing incomes in a public housing project makes the experiment worth trying. “It’s not without risk,” Rudman says of the Morrison. “A lot of planning is needed to make this work. But at the end of the day the trade-off, where people of poverty are isolated, is not a good idea.” Alma Abrams isn’t sure Howe or Martinez should be living in subsidized housing anyway. And she supports diverse housing. Abrams, a senior citizen who lives in the nearby market-rate Trinity Apartments and says she lived in subsidized housing in Chicago years ago, walks by the Morrison nearly every day. She doesn’t like what she’s seeing. “My tax dollars went to build that with the assumption that people who are in there didn’t have any other place to go,” Abrams says. “This is not what I envisioned.” Abrams’ vision included more people close to her age. “I was hoping there would be more seniors in the building,” she says. Public housing projects in Portland — especially in the Pearl District — have for years been subjected to similar criticism as they try to balance the need for rental income with helping the city’s poorest citizens find housing. The Morrison is full of young people like Howe and Martinez, people who probably will be making significantly more money in a few years. That is at least partly by design, according to Rudman, and partly out of necessity. The housing authority owns and runs the apartment building. With 45 apartments in the Morrison dedicated to tenants who previously were homeless, the rest of the building’s 140 apartments needed to be filled by tenants who not only could pay their own way, but could pay enough rent to keep the building operating and help the housing authority pay off its debt on the project. Howe and Martinez are, in effect, subsidizing the low rents from the 45 “permanent supportive housing” units — to use the housing authority’s language — by paying $695 rents that are “shallowly subsidized,” according to Rudman. The housing authority estimates that the Morrison’s rents are about $100 below market rate. Balance is key If the housing authority had set the Morrison’s rents lower, Rudman says, the building wouldn’t have been able to sustain itself. “That’s a tricky balance,” the housing authority’s Wickham says. Besides, Rudman says, young residents such as Howe and Martinez, regardless of what they eventually may earn, deserve publicly subsidized housing. “Think about how many (coffee) baristas in their 20s and 30s there are in the city with college degrees,” Rudman says. “If they qualify, who are we to say you shouldn’t live here?” But the Morrison’s shallow subsidies create their own problems by making the building unattainable for many people who would qualify for apartments if the rents were lower. Bill Buchholz is one of about a half-dozen seniors in the Morrison’s apartments. He’s the senior on fixed income who Abrams wants to see at the Morrison. But he may not stay. Buchholz, 75, says he loves his apartment. He says his $695 monthly rent comes out of his sole income — his $880 monthly social security check. Add to that the money he has to budget each month for electricity, telephone and cable and, Buchholz says, “I can’t eat. I don’t have any money.” Buchholz says he previously was in an assisted-living facility in Forest Grove, but he applied to live at the Morrison because of the location. He attends services at the nearby Trinity Episcopal Church and is a member of the Scottish Rite fraternal organization just two blocks away. He’s also partially disabled. The housing authority provided him with an apartment that includes a disabled assisted bathroom. Housing Authority officials say they don’t require minimum incomes for occupants — as long as prospective clients are under the income limit, they can qualify for an apartment. The housing authority hasn’t yet compiled demographic data on the Morrison’s residents, who began moving in to the building in November. Here is what they do know of the initial renters in units not dedicated to the homeless: Most are men, 90, compared with 31 women. There are only six units with children, all of whom are under the age of 4. Five units are rented to black tenants, one to a Latino. The majority of residents are in their 20s. A number are half-time students who work part-time jobs at bars, coffee shops and restaurants. Average stated income for the residents is $23,000. Ex-homeless must adjust Fifty-eight-year-old Betty Jenner, who lives in one of the units for the homeless, says the Morrison is the nicest place she has lived in, well, for about as long as she can remember. Jenner says she lived on the street for 19 years, in Portland and other cities, until the nonprofit Portland-based Northwest Pilot Project found her transitional housing last year at Alder House, a downtown single-room-occupancy hotel. Jenner, who suffers from mental illness, describes Alder House as “rotten.” The Morrison, she says, is different. “I can get my nerves calmed down.” Jenner says she suffers from epilepsy but since moving in to the calmer environment of the Morrison has not had one seizure. “You can walk out in the hallway without getting yelled at,” Jenner says. Jenner’s rent at the Morrison is $180, 30 percent of her monthly supplemental security check. At privately owned Alder House, she paid more for a 200-square-foot apartment with a community shower down the hall. Now Jenner has 525 square feet to herself, with her own bathroom outfitted to help her move around. But a visitor to Jenner’s apartment can’t help but notice that Jenner smokes constantly in her apartment, though the Morrison is supposed to be nonsmoking. And then there is the clutter. Jenner is a hoarder, according to Jessica Larson, a housing specialist with Northwest Pilot Project who comes to the Morrison twice a week. Larson works with the 45 previously homeless tenants on adjusting to what is for them a new way of living. Larson says there’s a difference between cluttering an apartment and trashing it, and Jenner is on the right side of the line. As for the smoking, Larson says, a special dispensation has been given to the Morrison’s formerly homeless tenants. If the homeless tenants were told they could not smoke, Larson says, “Then we’re just setting people up for failure, because they’re going to smoke.” Larson says that living at the Morrison has changed Jenner’s life. “She’s a new woman,” Larson says. “She’s going to live there forever. She loves it, and she knows the alternative.” See the other side More important, in terms of the social experiment going on at the Morrison-Civic project, is that Larson is certain Jenner will be a good tenant. There have been no complaints from other renters or building management, she says, about Jenner or about the other previously homeless tenants. Larson says she has been amused when tenants have told her about a few bizarre conversations with some of the previously homeless renters. She says she figures the young residents at the Morrison are getting firsthand lessons in tolerance. Larson says that she’s not certain if Jenner is any better off at the Morrison, surrounded by working-class and younger residents, than in a building set up for people with histories like hers. Given the need, Larson says, it doesn’t matter. “We’ll take housing as it’s available,” Larson says. “We need so much more housing for people like Betty. The reason things are the way they are in this building is because of how things penciled out. We’re not saying this is the best way to house the chronically homeless. We’re saying this is a financially viable way we can create housing for the chronically homeless. I think the Morrison is going to work, and I think we need 15 more Morrisons.” This email address is being protected from spambots. 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