Are churches the new housing developers? Leaders at a North Portland church property, now home to an affordable housing complex for formerly homeless veterans, say they can be part of the solution to Portland's housing crisis.

Last Wednesday morning, North Portland’s Portsmouth Union Church (PUC) was abuzz with people celebrating the opening of a new affordable housing development that’s been in the works for nearly a decade. The complex, dubbed Portsmouth Commons, is a 20-unit building located adjacent to the church on the same property. 

Portsmouth Commons was built to provide stable, supportive housing for veterans who have experienced homelessness. 

To the broader community, the housing complex might serve as an example of a new avenue for addressing Portland’s housing crisis. PUC isn’t the only religious institution in Portland working to provide more housing options for the city’s homeless population, and thanks to state legislative measures passed over the last several years that aim to make it easier to build affordable housing, more churches are primed to follow in their footsteps. 

Though it might seem unconventional for churches to double as low-income housing providers, advocates say it makes a lot of sense. Many churches were built on large lots with space they no longer need. The PUC leaders who spearheaded Portsmouth Commons think of the project as an opportunity to see their values in action— to “honor God’s call to shelter our neighbors in need,” per the church’s website

At an October 18 opening celebration, PUC Pastor Jules Nielsen spoke about what has kept her motivated to get Portsmouth Commons up and running, despite the roadblocks the team ran into along the way.

“I am noticing a huge amount of resentment, vitriol, and division in our communities because of fear of houseless people, fear of people who are being displaced, and misunderstanding about what the root causes of this are,” Nielsen said. “That's the fight that we have to fight here. We have to keep building housing. [We can’t] treat other people as the enemy just because they don’t live inside.” 

Portsmouth Commons 

The Portsmouth Commons development is located on the corner of North Lombard Street and North Fiske Avenue, sharing a courtyard with the neighboring church. It contains both single and double-residency units, each with private bathrooms and kitchens. The facility also has a shared community space with a bike room and laundry facility. 

The complex, which is a veterans-only facility, was funded almost entirely by a $2.35 million grant from Oregon Housing and Community Services

The apartments are managed by Good Space Property Management, and Do Good Multnomah will be on site three days a week providing supportive services to residents. Jess Gibly, Do Good Multnomah’s director of permanent supportive housing, told the Mercury the case management will be “light touch”—not as encompassing as what would be available at a permanent supportive housing facility receiving project-based Housing and Urban Development (HUD) subsidies. 

Portsmouth Commons will be kept affordable through tax credits instead of HUD subsidies, which Gibly said limits their capacity for wraparound services. But many of the residents receive HUD assistance via vouchers through programs like Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH), and voucher recipients often have individual social workers or case management teams who can provide outside support. Gibly said residents will be able to access on-site services that may help them access EBT funding or affordable internet. 

“The individual can come to get support when they need it, rather than doing consistent outreach to the individual,” Gibly said. “It’s a little more of a need-based model than a preventative model.” 

Do Good Multnomah and Gibly have been part of similar projects in the past, such as the Findley Commons affordable housing complex located on the property of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Southeast Portland. She said St. Mark’s and PUC have both shown up for the residents of their adjacent housing complexes, helping cultivate community. 

Gibly said a congregant at St. Marks gifted a much-wanted mandolin to a Findley Commons resident, and PUC members created welcome baskets for each of the residents. Such community perks aren’t always found at low-income developments.

“You have the communities and resources [at the housing project], and then the supportive communities right next door that allow residents to engage if they want to,” Gibly said. “I haven’t found any kind of proselytizing…they just have a community built-in already.” 

Removing the barriers for housing development

Among the attendees at the October 18 opening ceremony was Gov. Tina Kotek, who became aware of the project during her tenure as a state representative for North Portland. She said she was inspired to push for legislative action after witnessing the uphill battle church leaders faced while attempting to build the affordable housing complex. 

“The journey to get to this housing [opening] is a story of persistence, love, and hope,” Kotek said at the event. “I was inspired by what you were doing, and frankly, a little angry that it was so complicated.”

In 2021, Kotek sponsored House Bill 2008, which made it possible for churches to keep their tax exempt status if they were building affordable housing. She also sponsored 2021’s Senate Bill 8, which aimed to eliminate the complex zoning hurdles religious institutions had to jump through when attempting to build affordable housing developments on land not zoned for residential use. 

In addition to garnering support from members of religious organizations looking to provide affordable housing, these bills were also popular with pro-housing advocates, who want to see increased housing density within Portland’s urban growth boundary. 

1000 Friends of Oregon, a nonprofit that advocates for sustainable land-use planning policies, was one of many organizations that offered supportive testimony for Senate Bill 8 in 2021.

“Allowing housing to be located or co-located in a mixed use development could both revitalize some commercial areas and provide more affordable housing near other services and amenities,” wrote 1000 Friends Deputy Director Mary Kyle McCurdy. “Senate Bill 8 will make it easier for affordable housing providers to find and develop suitable parcels that are located where families need to be – near schools, stores, services, and jobs – in other words, in their communities.” 

Gibly agrees that it’s a net-positive for churches to use their property in this way. 

“It’s a great use of space,” she said. “As communities see shifts where we’re doing more things virtually, and not needing as much physical space, being able to repurpose that for housing is fantastic.”

During the opening celebration, Kotek said housing development will be the top priority for next year’s legislative session. 

“We need to put more money on the table for people and organizations who are ready to go, who have that mission in their organizations to help build housing,” Kotek said. “I will be there with you every day doing that.”