Affordable Housing in Downtown Portland? Actually, Yes!

Malka Osserman is the religious school administrator at Beit Haverim in Portland, and last summer she found herself in a situation she never could have imagined. With two master’s degrees, 25 years as a geriatric social worker in Florida and a job she enjoyed, she was struggling to make rent every month.

Malka had moved to Oregon in 2008 to be on the same coast with her family, and at first it was fine. She rented a two-bedroom house in Beaverton and liked her community, but then they raised her rent. And raised it again. She took in roommates, but that got more and more difficult.

Then she read an article in Oregon Jewish Life about the new Cedar Sinai Park Section 8 affordable housing buildings in downtown Portland. She applied for residency, and in two months she moved into the Park Tower Apartments on Southwest Salmon Street, close to the Park Blocks, a walk to the waterfront, amenities on site.

Malka already knew a lot about Section 8 “affordable” or “low income” housing, but she says this bears no resemblance to anything she has ever seen before. “It is like a boutique hotel,” she marvels. “The buildings are beautiful, totally renovated, new furniture, well thought out. Everything is so well kept up.”

Still, it was quite an adjustment at first. “There are 162 residents here, and it’s a real mixed bag,” she says. “I didn’t know anybody. How do I conduct myself ? I am a social worker, though. I told myself: I can do this. I started by observing first.”

The mixed bag, it turns out, holds some interesting people. There are the elderly – she herself is 62 – and some of them have challenges. There are people with disabilities. And she discovered there are lots of immigrants. One of her new friends is an Iranian Ph.D. student. “Many of them,” she says, “are highly educated but just don’t make enough money to be established.”

It also just feels right to her. She has joined the women’s group, and they work together to bring comfort and unity to the building.

“I was raised on a kibbutz where we were taught, ‘You shalt not cast us away when we are old and tired,’ ” Malka says. “They cared for my mother when she was paralyzed after multiple strokes. Later, they built a beautiful continuum of care facility at the center of the kibbutz so people could easily interact with the residents. The closest I have seen to such care and attention to the elders’ needs are the four buildings Cedar Sinai Park acquired.”

“There is a dignity here. Everybody here knows it’s unique. This is how it should be.”

Affordable housing was a logical next step for Cedar Sinai Park, says CEO David Fuks, but it would never have been possible without the generosity of the Schnitzer family, the hard work of Jim Winkler, and the dedication and cooperation of a whole team of partners and supporters. In the end, he says, it is going to be excellent for the community as well as for the organization itself.

“There are two elements that made this right for us,” he says. “First, it makes business sense. By operating affordable housing the way we are doing it, we can generate resources that will help us sustain the core mission of the organization: supporting our Jewish elders, including those who cannot afford the full cost of their care at the nursing center.”

It also will help Jewish elders who want to live at home and be independent longer, something, he says, people are telling him that they want, loud and clear.

“Cedar Sinai Park has a long-standing commitment to meet the needs of the Jewish community, creating a context for care and services so that people, regardless of their circumstances, can live at home in dignity, comfort and safety as long as they wish.”

Multi-family facilities have an additional benefit, according to Fuks. “Elders may seek to stay in their own homes in a way that results in them being isolated from others,” he says. “It also may not allow them access to some of the services they need to keep their independence. When a health situation comes up, they can end up needing a much higher level of care than they might have needed had the services been available to them at home. Onsite and nearby services are a key component of the new buildings.”

Section 8 HUD Affordable (Subsidized) Housing eligibility standards vary slightly by building. In general, though, the apartments are for households including a person who is 62 or older or, alternatively, has a disability. Residents must be here legally. And there is an upper income limit for each building. Currently, for example, the limit for a one-person household at the Park Tower, Lexington and 1200 Building is $24,300 a year; it is $30,660 a year at the Rose Schnitzer Tower. The numbers go up for multi-person households. For those who are accepted, the rent is always capped at about 30% of household income. Housing almost anywhere in the city, never mind downtown, can’t begin to compare.

“Be realistic about your economic situation,” Fuks advises. “If you are in your 80s, with some net worth but living primarily on Social Security, maybe some savings or a small pension, you may be eligible for housing like this. And this is really nice, near the art museum, near Broadway.”

There is a big snag, however. There are waiting lists for each of the buildings.

David Fuks’s advice? Put yourself on the waiting list now, before you need or want to move. You can always say “no thanks,” but you can’t make a quick decision if your circumstances change all of a sudden.

“In terms of affordability, it makes sense. In terms of the desire to remain independent, it makes sense. Put yourself on the list. Tell your friends.”

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