HOW CHARMING. At the end of a whirlwind courtship, Commissioner Nick Fish installed Traci Manning as Portland's newest housing czar last Friday, September 23. And maybe because both of them are still so in love with the arrangement, neither can quite remember who approached whom first.
Manning says she came to Fish's office first to talk about switching to government after 18 years at nonprofit Central City Concern, lately as its high-profile operations chief. But ask Fish and he'll say he subtly encouraged Manning to step forward—after every housing advocate he surveyed had her on their short list of dream candidates. Either way? Chalk it up to destiny.
Manning—an expert at wrangling love from local governments, business groups, and nonprofits to build big projects for the region's mentally ill, addicted, and homeless—is a prize hire.
Her record includes one very visible project—a clinic rising over the bones of the seedy old Burger King at Broadway and W Burnside—and another less visible but equally as important: a mental health crisis center in Northeast.
And her appointment, widely cheered by advocates, is also a signal that Portland will continue to make housing, especially for the less fortunate, a top priority.
"It's a great move for all of us who do this work," says Marc Jolin of housing nonprofit JOIN. "She has such a long history in the nonprofit community.
Manning, already a member of the Portland Housing Advisory Commission, takes over from Margaret Van Vliet, the bureau's first and only director. Van Vliet, who collected millions in grant money and presided over the construction of Bud Clark Commons, stepped down for a housing post in Governor John Kitzhaber's administration.
"Margaret was brought on to be the builder. She did a lot of the heavy lifting to lay a strong foundation," Fish told me. "I brought in Traci to sustain the bureau."
That won't be easy. Even as general fund support for housing programs increases, the two cash spigots that have funded construction—urban renewal money and federal grants—will slow dramatically in coming years. Luckily it's a challenge that plays to Manning's biggest strength: coalition building.
The city must become smarter about how projects are planned, working more closely with Multnomah County to do so. It also must continue seeking financial support from the business community, seen by some as less than sympathetic to the plight of the homeless.
Eventually, Fish will ask voters for help paying for housing programs, something that's still a few years away. And when the time comes, having a strong vision for the bureau—boosted by Manning's work—could go a long way.