Questions remain about interest payments for the Columbia project

Moving day couldn't have come at a worse time for Robert and Gwen Brooks.

Gwen Brooks, 63, had a kidney transplant in January 2002 and quintuple heart bypass surgery three months ago. Her 59-year-old husband, who works nights as a private security guard, is recovering from the removal of a goiter on his thyroid.

But somehow, the couple, who moved into North Portland's Columbia Villa after Gwen's health began deteriorating six years ago, had almost everything in their duplex packed before the moving van pulled up in front this week.

Moving and money are the two big stories at the villa this month as its owner, the Housing Authority of Portland, continues with its plans to replace the villa's existing all-public housing with a mixed-income, mixed-use development, dubbed New Columbia by 2006.

Relocation of the villa's 1,200 residents to other, taxpayer-funded housing is accelerating now that the school year has ended. And on Thursday, the Portland City Council is expected to authorize the housing authority to apply for a $9 million loan to pay for demolition of the site, scheduled to begin in October.

The loan, $8.4 million of which will be guaranteed by the city, is part of a $20 million commitment to the project made by the city in 2001. The rest of the money will come from other sources within the city's budget over the course of the project.

The city's budget for fiscal 2003-04 also is scheduled for approval Thursday, immediately before the vote on the housing authority loan.

The loan vote will take place without the city and the housing authority having reached agreement on who will be responsible for paying the interest. The amount of those payments will depend on how much of the $9 million authorized actually is borrowed, how quickly it is repaid and the rate of interest.

City representatives previously said they want the housing authority to pay the loan costs so the financially strapped city's obligation doesn't exceed the promised $20 million. The housing authority has argued that the city should pay the costs because the authority can't afford to divert any of the $20 million it was counting on for the $146.5 million project.

The issue must be resolved before closing on the loan takes place in September, according to Mike Andrews, finance manager for New Columbia.

Making the move

While conversations about how to pay for the villa's demolition continue, signs that it is coming are everywhere at the site. The villa's majestic London plane trees are marked with aluminum tags or spray-painted Xs to indicate whether they will or will not survive the demolition.

Eighty-eight households already had moved out as of June 11, their wooden, World War II-era duplexes and fourplexes now standing empty. East Side Mayflower and Willamette Express moving vans are daily visitors to the site, where another 294 households remain to be moved, most of them in July and August.

'Between the two of us, we got things done, sort of,' Gwen Brooks says with a laugh as her husband opens the door to three young, strong movers (albeit one with his arm in a cast). The duplex is crammed with boxes that contain almost everything the couple own, except a large antique sideboard, three recliners and the widescreen TV that Gwen watches while her husband is at work.

The couple are moving into a single-family home owned by the housing authority, also in North Portland. They hope to use Robert Brooks' security guard income to purchase one of New Columbia's affordable single-family houses when the development is completed.

'I'm going to work as long as my body will let me,' he says cheerfully.

The movers start pulling boxes out the door. The jaunty red- and white-striped rose that the couple planted over a small arbor near the front door is staying. The two signs in their front window 'Day Sleeper' and 'Proud to be an American' will be the last things to go.

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