Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives
Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives was born as response from neighborhood and government leaders to the unethical mortgage practices that had taken place in neighborhoods of North and North East Portland in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The lack of lending presence from major banks opened the way for predatory lenders to take advantage of those in the area. These lenders provided residents with fraudulent contracts and unfair payment options leading residents to lose their homes.
In 1992, PCRI's mission to "preserve, expand and manage affordable housing in the City of Portland and provide access to, and advocacy for, services for our residents" set afloat. They began by rehabilitating 271 homes and renegotiating the over 80 fraudulent contracts of those who had been deceived by the unscrupulous practices of predatory lenders.
Today, PCRI provides more than 700 units of affordable housing through a mix of scattered single-family homes, multiplexes, and community apartments. In addition, PCRI provides services such as financial education, youth programs, employment search and preparation assistance, community gardens, and English language development assistance.
During Spring term 2014 I had the honor to volunteer at Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives (PCRI) to fulfill my field experience requirement. I was connected with the Director of Programs for the organization, Melody Padilla, through Dr. Karen Gibson who sits on the board of the organization. My time at PCRI allowed me to immerse myself in two areas of Community Development that I was very intrigued by; housing development and transportation policy. While the work load was multifaceted, my primary task was to assist the resident services coordinator at Margaret Carter Community Network Center, Nuhamin Eiden, with identifying the most pressing transportation needs the residents were facing, allowing PCRI to formulate better strategies to dismantle these barriers. Volunteering at PCRI also allowed me to implement some of the skills that I had acquired through Portland State’s advertising program, which is my second major.
During the first couple of weeks my goal was to collect as much information about PCRI and its residents in order to have a better understanding of their needs. This was accomplished by creating and implementing a survey. The survey’s questions covered a range of topics that were of interest to the Resident Coordinator, and was distributed through out a period of about two weeks. The survey uncovered that transportation was among the most pressing barriers to employment, an issue that Margaret Carter center involves itself with. To better understand the transportation-related issues our residents were facing, we decided to assemble a focus group which revealed important insights. For example one of our residents noted that because she depended on public transportation and because service isn’t always reliable, she missed an interview for a job. Another resident noted that while he had secured a job, the job required him to work between 6pm and 2am, and because there is no transportation at 2am, he had to quit the job. He added: “In America a car is a basic necessity like food or clothes”.
As we continued to probe throughout the focus group, I was getting the sense that these individuals felt underserved by the public transportation system. I asked them if they felt that the public transportation system was made for them. One of the residents answered:
Our focus group also touched on alternative transportation methods, such as cycling/bike-share, walking, and Zipcar. While a majority of our residents welcomed the idea of Zipcar, our focus group revealed additional problems. Many of the residents who were interested in Zipcar felt the service was too expensive and many were facing a difficulty obtaining a driver’s license due to economic or language barriers. One of our residents noted that while he had driven in his country for twelve years without any problem, driving in America was very different because the road was different. In order to obtain a driver’s license he needed practice, however he didn’t have the money to pay for this service. Through out my volunteer time at PCRI, we set down with Zipcar to discuss these barriers. Zipcar agreed to offer discounted rates to both PCRI residents and employees, and to cancel out the the annual membership fee. We also drafted a proposal asking Zipcar to help fund driving lessons for those who were interested in Zipcar but didn't have a license. Finally, all of this primary research was supplemented by secondary research and other materials offered to me through my Urban Transportation: Problems and Policies course at PSU.
Being able to implement knowledge like this is why my time at PCRI was of great significance. As Melody Padilla noted when we discussed affordable housing:
This school of thought puts forward that it is individuals by will that decide wether to tackle social issues or not, and not a collective responsibility that we all have. We have been indoctrinated that ‘others’ will take lead and help, but quite the opposite has taken place. As a result, there remains insufficient help for those in society who are most in need. Furthermore as Melody and I discussed community development and related issues is not something that a lot of people get an education on, unless they specifically find themselves in the field. Hence there is a lack of help but also a lack of knowledge that there is a need for this help.
This is another reason why my work at PCRI was of vital. My field experience not only allowed me to be of help, but it enriched me with new knowledge about a community that has been often underserved. I find that it is now my responsibility as a member of society to serve as an advocate for this community and share this knowledge with others to propel future change. As Melody noted “who would say they are against everyone having safe housing or economic justice or things of that nature?” It is my job to make this knowledge relevant to others and tie the commonalities. Hopefully this allows others to realize that issues that seem to affect only ‘others’, often have an invisible and powerful effect on all of society.
A great example of these issues is gentrification in Portland. The city has experienced immense change through out the last couple of years due to its rapid growth. This growth seems to only get stronger and faster, carrying with it a wave vast effects to our social fabric. Once again PCRI will prove how relevant their work is to the communities it serves. As Nuhamin Eiden points out, “more residents have been pushed out of this area because of gentrification in the past decade, and it is only going to continue to get worse.” The high occupancy rates and rising rents continues to add hardship to already struggling low income residents. Eiden continues, “they are getting pushed out into the outskirts, and the services are not int he outskirts.” PCRI’s approach to low-income housing has proven to alleviate these effects. PCRI’s multitude of services helps individuals get out of or prevent homelessness trough affordable housing, supports career development, provides financial wellness through its IDA program, and helps residents buy a home through its homeownership program so that these individuals can build wealth for themselves and their families. Homeownership is key in preventing displacement, and as Andrea Debnam, Homeownership Program Coordinator at PCRI, offers:
I am beyond thankful for the opportunity that was bestowed to me in volunteering at PCRI. My experience allowed me not only to meet all of my learning objectives, but in addition to uncover invaluable insights and history about Portland. It is quite astonishing how much knowledge can remain hidden, and as result how oblivious we can be to the daily adversities that individuals in our community face. I find that more people would concern themselves with the issues that are currently taking place, if they were aware of how much the make-up of this city has changed and how much of these issues are the result of systematic oppression on the low-income and minorities. Still, we have cooked up a plan to keep these issues invisible. As the price of rent and amenities rise in the inner-core, the low- income will move further out into the outskirts where you won’t see them at your local coffee shop or grocery store. Moreover the stigma against the low income and the belief that we must all pull ourselves up by our own boot-straps means no one is talking about it. Therein lies my biggest take away from this experience: one needs to use one's position and possession of knowledge to help others.
Once again a special thanks is due to everyone at PCRI, specially Nuhamin Eiden and Melody Padilla.