Vancouver housing nonprofit shores up services

ACE partners with larger Portland agency

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 
photoLeah Greenwood Executive director, Affordable Community Environments

()

CONTACTING ACE

• acecommunities.org

• 360-597-0088

• 2155 West Firestone Lane, Suite 103, Vancouver

WASHOUGAL — A formerly faltering neighborhood has gotten a serious lift thanks to a small, formerly faltering nonprofit housing developer based in Vancouver. The formerly faltering developer has gotten a serious lift from a larger nonprofit developer, based in Portland.

ACE properties

Current

• Cascadia Village (51 units), Covington Commons (42 units) and The Mews at Cascadia Village (24 units), all at 9600 N.E. 73rd St.

• McCallister Village, 48 units at 2155 West Firestone Lane.

• Gateway Gardens, 32 units at 4300 Addy St., Washougal.

Future

• 62nd Avenue Senior Housing, 90 or more new units at 3112 N.E. 62nd Ave.

• Towne Square Apartments, rehabilitation of 40 units (built in 1977) at 2900 H St., Washougal.

Affordable Community Environments, which bought and remodeled the Gateway Gardens apartment complex in 2010, has become a subsidiary of REACH Community Development. REACH is a grass-roots nonprofit that started in Southeast Portland in the early 1980s and now owns and manages nearly 1,700 units of low-income housing in and around Portland.

The merger brings much-needed stability and capacity to ACE, which has 195 units, and an opportunity for regional growth to REACH. That's according to Leah Greenwood, who was ACE's executive director but is now on the REACH payroll — and who still staffs an office at McAllister Village, an ACE project on Fruit Valley Road.

Some Washougal homeowners may qualify for free home fixes

A $100,000 grant from Clark County’s community services department will extend a long-standing Portland home repair program into Washougal in September. The Community Builders Program will aim to remedy health, safety and other issues with substandard housing for qualifying low-income senior citizens and disabled people who own their own homes in Washougal.

REACH, a large Portland nonprofit housing developer that recently took on Clark County’s Affordable Community Environments as a subsidiary, will deploy volunteers, contractors and its own staff to do comprehensive home assessments, make minor repairs and offer referrals as needed. The program will address health and safety concerns, including code violations and accessibility and energy-efficiency improvements.

REACH is eager to enlist in-kind donations and labor from local businesses and community volunteers.

For more information call 360-326-4647 or visit acecommunities.org.

— Scott Hewitt

Together, the two agencies plan to bring more good things to Washougal — including another lift for a nearby neighborhood and a free, citywide home-repair program for low-income senior citizens and people with disabilities who qualify.

"REACH is committed to helping seniors and low-income residents live safely and in good health in their homes," said CEO Dan Valliere. "We're thrilled to be able to offer this free home repair program to our neighbors in Washougal."

Gateway

"It just doesn't feel like low income anymore," said Bambi Scates, 54, who has lived at what used to be called Bethea Park Estates on Addy Street in southeast Washougal since 1999. ACE bought the complex for $1.8 million in 2010, spent another $1.8 million on renovations and renamed it Gateway Gardens.

The federally subsidized group of 32 units "always used to look bad," Scates said, no matter the occasional new coat of paint. Former owners provided little maintenance and no human services at all, she said; it was a downscale rental with a downbeat attitude. "It looked and felt like a dump," said Greenwood.

Now, after the dramatic 2010 remodel that's more like a rebirth, Scates said, drug activity and police calls are down and ACE staffers plus a couple of VISTA volunteers are building a new sense of community with youth programs and other resident services.

"A lot of residents don't have cars and they're not working," Scates said, so they rarely used to get out at all. In fact, they seldom left their apartments, she said. But on a hot day in late July, children were outside playing badminton while parents watched from the cool of their newly screened patios. Scates walked around distributing fliers advertising a community picnic.

"The remodel changed how some people live," said Scates. "It's still low income, but you don't need to live like it's low income."

Her apartment is still tiny, she said, but the remodel made it so much nicer: New windows and floors. A new kitchen with all new appliances. A new bathroom with low-flow facilities, and a window air conditioner — something no unit used to be allowed. Now add in Scates' homey touches with hanging plants and paintings, and you've got a tight but cheerful little nest.

That's a typical interior at the complex, which offers one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments. On the outside, the central courtyard has a new playground and a dozen raised garden beds for residents. Strategically placed slatted wooden window awnings help beat the heat. A useless concrete pad has been removed and all exterior walls got colorful metal siding in place of the dark old plywood. (There was nothing ACE could do about the arrestingly blocky building frames, Greenwood said — it's not like ACE could replace flat roofs with pointed ones — so it made the best of what it had to work with.)

And, there's a new community room with computers, a kitchen and sliding glass doors that face the grassy courtyard. That's where VISTA volunteers Kelsey Rudeen and Leana Brodie keep the kids busy on summer days and after-school hours.

ACE also has a resident services coordinator who covers all its properties, Greenwood said, offering any kind of help its residents need — from job connections to barbecue plans. Her name is Kim Matic, and Scates called her "a buffet of information. People are just starting to realize how valuable she is."

During the remodel, residents were moved to another nearby property whose landlord welcomed the temporary rentals; afterward, Greenwood said, most were eager to return but a few realized they could move on to something better still, partially thanks to new opportunities and the improving economy.

"As far as we're concerned that's the idea," Greenwood said. "We want people to have choices."

ACE's spaces

ACE's purchase and remodel of what's now Gateway Gardens happened in 2010, prior to its merger with REACH, which just happened this year — ACE's 15th year of operation. Greenwood, who came aboard in 2008, described those 15 years as a roller coaster ride tempered by long stretches of flatness.

The story began when a private, out-of-town developer faltered on a low-income housing project in the Five Corners neighborhood. That was in 1998, and ACE was formed to see the project through. Covington Commons opened in January 2000; on opening day, ACE learned that adjoining parcels were for sale, and decided to make its vision into a village. Neighboring buildings opened in 2003 and 2005.

Even so, Greenwood said, ACE was faltering. Never big on marketing itself and stalled by local effects of the Great Recession — namely, dwindling public housing resources and skittish private investors — it walked in place at best, and even considered declaring bankruptcy, she said.

"The pie is just not that big here, and there's not a ton of overlap in what the housing nonprofits do," she said. The handful of major players occupy distinct niches, she noted: for example, the Vancouver Housing Authority is the generalist, administering federal housing vouchers and owning blocks of public housing (for very low-income people) and "workforce" housing (for not-so-low-income people). Second Step Housing serves women and children with subsidies and social services; Share provides emergency shelter and "transitional" (post-shelter) housing. Most of these are time-limited rentals. Two years is typical.

ACE, meanwhile, became a second-tier generalist. It has no time limits. Its subsidized and "heavily regulated" rents stay very low. When Greenwood came aboard a cash-flow crisis was well underway, and she immediately made some "tough decisions" about her staff — there were layoffs, furloughs, reduced work hours — and moved ACE to an office with cheaper rent.

ACE did manage to open McCallister Village in Fruit Valley in 2011, she said, but even that project was endangered by the sagging market and the failure of the Bank of Clark County, one of its backers. "We ended up figuring out a way to cut three-quarters of a million dollars out of the project without compromising on quality," she said.

Personal connections

McCallister Village was a learning experience in another significant way, Greenwood said: community involvement. When ACE first came to the Fruit Valley Neighborhood Association to propose its idea — more low-income housing in a notably low-income neighborhood — the answer was simple: no. Not without services for children and teenagers. "That's what they really wanted," Greenwood said. "This neighborhood has a strong commitment to its kids."

ACE responded by developing a deal with the local Boys & Girls Clubs organization to bring in what became the Teen Center at McCallister Village. It's not a standalone Boys & Girls Club, but it offers many of the same amenities and advantages. OK, said the neighborhood, but your new development also has to fit aesthetically with the new elementary school next door. That wasn't a problem for ACE, which always favored plank construction and a very stylish Pacific Northwest look.

The neighborhood was won over. "It came out a superior project because of that community input," said Greenwood. McCallister Village ending up winning a Community Pride Design award.

But ACE continued to face a flatlining future. It bought, renovated and brought services to Gateway Gardens in Washougal, but its careful, conservative strategic planning continued to point toward collapse, unless more cash and stability could be found. "It looked like we could get right back to where we were in 2008," said Greenwood.

That's when Greenwood went hunting for a partner. Before coming to ACE she'd worked at the Portland Development Commission, and now she reported honestly to her friends back over the bridge -- including numerous nonprofit housing developers -- exactly what was going on with ACE. That led to a friendly phone call from the (now former) director of REACH, Dee Walsh, who'd heard that ACE was doing quality work but up against the ropes nonetheless. Walsh proposed a mutually beneficial way forward for both agencies.

REACHing north

REACH is much larger than ACE, but it still faces the challenge of a growing and competitive housing market, CEO Dan Valliere said. "Tons of competition for limited public dollars," he said. "We were starting to see fewer projects in the pipeline due to all the competition." Meanwhile, he added, REACH's seasoned staff was primed for success and eager to keep at it.

The answer was to grow north. "If we can provide the infrastructure for ACE, we don't need to create a new pipeline in Washington state. They already have that," said Valliere.

The merger "notched us up" in the eyes of potential backers, he said. Acquiring ACE is not the same as swallowing "toxic assets" with heavy debt, he said. Its properties are high quality and its reputation is excellent; it also occupies a niche and offers services that REACH doesn't.

"REACH isn't the only nonprofit exploring" this type of regional merger and expansion, he added. Oregon banks looking to fulfill their legal obligation to reinvest in local communities and investors hungry for opportunities don't care about the dividing line between the states, he said.

Greenwood said REACH has not "absorbed" ACE. "We have this funky subsidiary structure," she said, that was custom-built by the two governing boards. REACH now has two Southwest Washington residents on its board.

Next up for ACE is two projects: 90 or more units of new senior citizen housing on 62nd Avenue, off Fourth Plain, with groundbreaking probably aimed for the summer of 2014; and another Washougal rehabilitation project, the 40-unit Towne Square Apartments on H Street, possibly starting later this year. Like Gateway Gardens, ACE plans to bring in community-building services along with a major remodel.

Greenwood said ACE has often been asked what it's doing to shore up its own capacity and stability. "Now we have an answer," she said.


Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; scott.hewitt@columbian.com; facebook.com/reporterhewitt; twitter.com/col_nonprofits