An almost athletic challenge faced the three nonprofits building the new Glisan Commons complex on Northeast 100th Avenue and Glisan Street.

So Human Solutions’ Executive Director Jean DeMaster cited the biggest contest of all to describe how they felt crossing the finish line.

“It was an Olympian effort,” announced a beaming DeMaster, peering out over a crowd of about 150 well-wishers at the grand opening of Phase I of the complex on February 13. “While we don’t actually win a gold medal, we will be giving away our golden shovel in a few minutes.”

 Speakers at last month's Glisan Commons grand opening are, from left, Human Solutions Executive Director Jean DeMaster, RIDE Connection Executive director Elaine Wells, Oregon Housing and Community Services Director Margaret Van Vliet, Senior Vice President of Community Development Lending at Bank of America Merrill Lynch Jan Laskey, and City Commissioner Dan Saltzman.At the end of her speech, DeMaster handed a gleaming shovel to Dan Valliere, chief executive officer of REACH Community Development, the community development corporation that is building a 60-unit building for seniors that will open in March 2015.

Valliere and his crew valiantly broke ground on a chilly sunlit morning that held promise for the thousands of people in Portland who daily pan for the precious gold of affordable housing.

The stage at the grand opening of Phase I of the new Glisan Commons building was filled with politicians, nonprofit directors and bank lenders–all lauding the new facility–expected to be the newest gem in the Gateway Regional Center Urban Renewal Area crown.

Carla Piluso, Human Solutions board chair, hosted the event. She quoted a line from a Charles Dickens novel, whose stories described the plight of London’s poor: “Let us think of the poor in their chilly hovels, with bare tables, and of the yet more wretched objects, homeless wanderers in the open streets.”

“That’s what we’re combating,” Piluso said. “What we combat each and every day and when we can do it in collaboration with others–REACH and Ride Connection specifically today–when we have the support of our communities, of our government, of our funders, we are making a difference.”

A ceremonial groundbreaking for Phase II of Glisan Commons, a building for low-income seniors, was also held at the grand opening of Phase I last month. DeMaster stressed that the two-phase project has been years in the making. Phase I, which was completed this January, includes a $12.5 million, five-story, mixed-use building with 67 units of workforce housing, developed and managed by Human Solutions, a nonprofit serving low-income people which DeMaster directs.

The units will be offered to people earning 30 to 60 percent of area median family income, or $15,000 to $30,000 for a single-family household. Phase I also includes 16,000 square feet of commercial space located on the ground floor, owned and operated by Ride Connection, a transportation service provider catering to seniors and people with disabilities. Its 45-plus employees will move into their new $6 million main headquarters there early this summer.

Phase II is the construction of REACH’s $9.4 million senior building, with affordable units for people 55 and over.

Speaking passionately from the podium, DeMaster envisioned the new complex filling the gap of scarce affordable housing.

“One of the reasons that the number of homeless families is so high right now is that there are very few vacant units for low-income families to rent,” she said. “This shortage of affordable housing results in more families being homeless–and more families being homeless for longer periods of time.”

DeMaster stressed that the units Human Solutions is building will be for people “in the workforce” who will spend their paychecks at Gateway businesses. Because the complex is so close to bus lines and the MAX station as well as shopping areas and restaurants, the residents “can choose to live without reliance on having an automobile,” she said.

“For a low-income household where the cost of owning, repairing and maintaining a car can take a significant portion of your income, this is a marked advantage.”

The new building is also environmentally friendly she said, citing its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum rating, based on many energy conservation features, including a healthy indoor environment.

Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who oversees the Portland Housing Bureau, told the crowd that not only will affordable housing be built but that “we’re bringing jobs to Gateway, too. Ride Connection, when they have their offices completed here, some 47 people will be working here. And when you’re close to the MAX line like you are, when you have six or seven bus lines, this all helps add to the critical mass that I believe creates more success in the Gateway area.”

Saltzman added that the PHB provided several million dollars from its urban renewal money for housing to assist this project.

Director Margaret Van Vliet from Oregon Housing and Community Services said her organization contributed tax credits and some grant funds to the financing effort. “What I’m seeing statewide is that while we’re coming out of the recession, the gap for affordable housing for people who need help the most is only growing,” she said. “Wages are not keeping pace with the price of real estate, be that home ownership or rental. We have more work to do.”

But she congratulated Human Solutions and its partners who faced “stiff competition for very scarce resources,” in her words.

Jan Laskey, Senior Vice President of Community Development Lending at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, talked numbers to the crowd, noting her bank provided tax credit equity to both Human Solutions and REACH for almost $14 million.

In addition, they bankrolled construction loans for about $17 million. The bank is also part of the Network for Oregon Affordable Housing, which provided a permanent loan of $1,885,052 to Human Solutions. “We’re very proud of that,” Laskey said. “It was quite a challenge bringing all this money together.”

She predicted the new complex would be truly amazing. “It’s so wonderful to see the properties, and imagine the lives that are going to be transformed in each of these places and imagine the community that’s going to be here as people begin interacting and the senior housing and people meeting and Ride Connection really having a home.”

Elaine Wells, executive director of Ride Connection, said, “Besides this wonderful new home for Ride Connection, we are very excited to be a part of the Gateway community. We look forward to becoming fully involved in the community and want to be good neighbors and good business partners. The three organizations are a logical fit to work together to serve our respective customer communities, and to be all housed together. That’s just going to be a fantastic dream come true.”

The three nonprofits also received financial support from the Oregon Department of Transportation, the Portland Housing Bureau, the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Collins Foundation, Ann and Bill Swindell’s Charitable Trust, NeighborWorks America, Enterprise and TriMet.

Economic development desirous, but not low-income housing
However many in the community are pleased with the new complex, some neighbors–developer Ted Gilbert is one of them–are wary of placing many more units of solely low-income housing in the Gateway area without first adding market-rate units and new businesses. Gilbert, president of Gilbert Bros Real Estate and owner of a building on Northeast Halsey Street, as well as the vacant lot on Northeast 102nd Avenue near Fred Meyer’s, served for several years on the Gateway Regional Center Urban Renewal Area Program Advisory Committee (PAC). “It’s a pretty building,” he said, referring to Glisan Commons and its blend of workforce and senior housing. “Those folks still shop and have needs and walk the streets,” Gilbert said. “All of that can be helpful and useful.”

Still, he stressed that Metro and the City of Portland designated Gateway as a regional center–one of few in the region. That meant revitalizing the area with increased population, more jobs and more economic development, while preserving the existing residential neighborhoods. “I bought into that dream. I think that is the missing element now in Gateway,” Gilbert said. “We don’t lack for housing in east Portland; there is housing.”

Gateway needs re-branding
However, Gilbert believes to create a mixed income regional center that has what he called “economic vibrance,” the perception of east Portland must be changed–must be re-branded–in the minds of the community and the private sector, which is now unwilling to invest much money in the area.

“I don’t think you do that by leading with more subsidized housing at this moment,” he said, averring to Glisan Commons. “I think you do it by leading with things that demonstrate that the private sector can come and bring their capital and their ideas and their development and their jobs and afford to get a return on their investment. I think it’s a timing thing. If we were ever successful in creating a regional center, clearly we’ll need housing, and we’ll need more housing, and we’ll need more affordable housing.”

When asked how many years the Gateway community needs to work at changing its image to bring in more investment, Gilbert replied, “For the next five years at least.”

Noting that Gateway is nearing the mid-point of its 20-year urban renewal district time frame, Gilbert prophesied that time is running out. “A lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of community investment, a lot of public effort, and money has been invested in an urban renewal process in Lents and in Gateway,” he said. “It’s fair to ask, at the end of those 20 years, what do we have to show for the effort?”

He added, “If what we’ve done is–well, it’s pretty much the way it was–but there’s a lot more multi-family housing there and much of it is subsidized housing that never produces any tax increment from what was there to start with–will it have been worth the effort and all the money on urban renewal? If, on the other hand, we’ve been able to get it to the tipping point, where there is development that doesn’t need subsidy, that there are more jobs, that there’s more discretionary income in the district, that there’s more tax revenue that will go to pay for city services and schools–and there’s also housing and affordable housing–will we say, it was worth the effort?”

Gilbert wants the community to embrace the second scenario, adding, “I don’t think you’re going to get there by doing more of the same.”

Mark Jones, owner of McGillacuddy’s Sports Bar and Grill in Gateway, said that generally moving more people into housing in the Gateway area would be good for his business because of the expanded customer base.

However, he added, “It would matter what the housing is.”

Noting that Glisan Commons is for low-income residents, he said, “If they can’t come in and afford to have a burger and a beer, then it really doesn’t help me out much. It has everything to do with if people feel they have discretionary income.”

He said the average age at his sports bar is between 30 and 50 years and customers are primarily male. So he wasn’t sure if the new senior residence would attract many customers. “To have more people in the area is usually a good thing for any kind of business, be it the bike shop or us,” Jones said. “If there’s more people living within walking distance or a short drive or a short bike ride, it’s positive.”

Glisan Commons Phase I
Human Solutions broke ground December 2012 for its $12.5 million, five-story, workforce-housing complex: four studios and 63 one-bedroom units, and completed January 2014.
63 units available to households earning 60 percent of area Median Family Income (MFI), or $29,160 for a single-person household.
Four units available to households earning 30 percent of MFI, or $14,580 for a single-person household.
Rents range from $247 (studio) to $585 (one bedroom).
Amenities include community room, bike and household storage, on-site laundry facilities, community computers, fresh air supplied through heating and air conditioning system, controlled access building, community activities.
Architect: Holst Architecture.
General Contractor: R& H/Colas Co.
Construction Manager: Housing Development Center.
Resident services provided by Human Solutions.
Property Management Services provided by REACH Community Development Corporation.
Ride Connection, a nonprofit providing accessible transportation options, opens its $6 million, 16,000-square-foot headquarters on main floor, employing 47 employees this summer.

Glisan Commons Phase II
REACH Community Development Corporation broke ground February 2014 to build a $9.4 million, 60-unit affordable senior complex for people 55 and older.

The expected completion date is March 2015.

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