Innovative Funding Provides Culturally Specific Affordable Housing to Native Americans
For the first time in the United States, Indian Housing Block Grant (IHBG) Program funds were used to construct affordable housing outside of reservation lands. Community Development Partners (CDP), the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA), and the Native American Rehabilitation Association (NARA) partnered with the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians (Siletz) to develop Nesika Illahee, an affordable housing development in northeast Portland’s Cully neighborhood. Siletz sponsored the project with its HUD IHBG funding so that the development could give preference to Native Americans, who are disproportionately more likely to experience homelessness than other county residents. The partnership’s goal is to foster a sense of belonging for tribal members in an urban setting through culturally specific design, services, and amenities.
The demographics and building features of the three-story complex reflect the requirements associated with its various funding sources. Oregon Housing and Community Services (OHCS) granted 4 percent low-income housing tax credits, which require that the development accommodate households making no more than 60 percent of area median income. The IHBG Program funds 20 units that give first residential priority to Siletz tribal members and second priority to members of a federally or state-recognized tribe and Alaskan Natives. Unlike other HUD programs, such as the Housing Choice Voucher program, IHBG funds do not guarantee rental income. The development has received additional support for these units, including $1.5 million that will provide $75,000 per year in rental subsidies over 20 years. The OHCS Mental Health Housing and General Housing Account programs fund 15 units that are set aside as recovery housing for tenants with substance use disorders. These residents receive additional support from NARA through drug and alcohol counseling, which includes weekly “well-briety” meetings to encourage sobriety. The organization’s onsite activities also include biweekly community meetings, diabetes management groups, and dental and healthcare services for all residents. Located approximately a half-mile from the complex, NAYA serves families with children through wraparound services that provide food, clothes, and domestic violence interventions along with other forms of emergency assistance.
All units, which include 13 studios and 30 one-bedroom, 9 two-bedroom, and 7 three-bedroom apartments, contain ENERGY STAR® appliances and LED lighting. The OHCS Multifamily Energy Program (MEP) covered the costs of these energy-efficiency measures, which have reduced Nesika Illahee’s electricity use by nearly 50 percent and earned the development Platinum certification from Earth Advantage. Residents are responsible for their electricity bill; however, all other utilities are included. OHCS also provided a loan through its Local Innovation and Fast Track rental housing program, bringing its total contribution to Nesika Illahee to more than $10 million.
Creating a Sense of Belonging at Different Scales
With Native American households making up 90 percent of its residents, Nesika Illahee is a culturally specific community whose design and amenities give residents a place to partake in tribal traditions at different scales. Storytelling — both visual and oral — is a key tradition that is practiced in the interior and exterior spaces of the complex. The visual storytelling tradition is embodied in 43 art pieces created by local and national Native American artists. Wood carvings, room signage representing salmon gills and friendship bands, and murals are aesthetically pleasing while being a familiar cultural element for residents. The courtyard contains sculptures of tribal imagery found across the Pacific Northwest. The building façade facing 42nd Avenue, the neighborhood’s commercial and transit corridor, features a mural of the Siletz tribe’s late eldest grandmother. The mural is a reminder of the importance of elders in Native American culture.
As COVID restrictions lift, the complex is developing ways to safely facilitate oral storytelling. Raising garage doors improves ventilation in the community room, where residents join drum circles and share their personal experiences. The exterior plaza hosts storytelling events by community members. By opening these interior and ground-floor exterior spaces to neighborhood residents, Nesika Illahee is a key component in NAYA’s ongoing efforts to transform 42nd Avenue into a cultural corridor.
NAYA merged with Our 42nd Avenue, a neighborhood coalition, and partnered with the city of Portland to transform 42nd Avenue into an arts-based economic development. To bridge cultures within the diverse Cully neighborhood, CDP, NARA, and NAYA are extending their partnerships offsite as they plan a large neighborhood event at Fernhill Park, which is located along the avenue. Mamook Tokatee, which means “making beautiful,” is NAYA and CDP’s new affordable housing project, which will open in December 2021. The culturally specific project will provide affordable housing for artists and Native Americans using a $1 million IHBG contribution from Siletz.
Carleton Hart Architecture. n.d. “Nesika Illahee.” Accessed 25 May 2021; Community Development Partners. n.d. “Nesika Illahee.” Accessed 25 May 2021; Correspondence from Jena Levy, communications manager, Community Development Partners, 28 June 2021; Portland Housing Bureau. 2019. “State of Housing in Portland. Part 1: Portland Demographics & Housing Stock.” Accessed 21 June 2021. ×
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