A Southwest Portland district coalition that sought to reinstate its public funding was denied last month.
Southwest Neighborhoods, Inc. (SWNI) was notified by the Office of Community and Civic Life on April 13 that its request for city funds was not included in the latest budget. The organization previously served as the city’s designated coalition to serve more than 16 neighborhood associations in Southwest Portland.
In 2021, Portland city commissioners opted not to renew SWNI’s $297,000 no-bid grant contract, meaning it would no longer be recognized as a city-sanctioned district coalition.
That decision came on the heels of a third-party audit and other reported issues surrounding equity and transparency within SWNI.
It also marked the third time city leaders dismantled a district coalition and instead moved neighborhood association services under the purview of Civic Life.
In a letter to SWNI’s board members, Civic Life management said the bureau wants to wait until after new city charter reform changes are implemented.
“After careful consideration, the Office of Community and Civic Life has decided that it would be best to wait until after the redistricting process is complete before moving forward with any changes to our neighborhood coalition model,” T.J. McHugh, Civic Life’s acting director, stated.
Since losing its city contract–its primary revenue source– in 2021, SWNI tried to carry on as an independent nonprofit organization, albeit with fewer services. The organization, which now has no staff, still coordinates with neighborhood associations via regular Zoom meetings and distributes a digital newsletter. Roughly a handful of neighborhood associations previously served by SWNI have since transitioned to independent nonprofit groups vying for donations and small grants directly from the city.
On Wednesday, April 26, SWNI’s board met to decide whether to disband, or try to forge a path forward with limited donations.
The board opted not to disband. Instead, the organization will slim its expenses and services even further, making do with an $18,000 annual budget.
SWNI board members did not respond to the Mercury’s questions and requests for input. In its May newsletter, the organization’s president, Steve Mullinax, said the city’s decision leaves SWNI “reliant on the dedicated work of unpaid volunteers to provide what City-funded personnel in other areas are paid to provide.”
SWNI has previously noted that it still provides administrative and financial services to neighborhood associations because the city has failed to fully serve neighborhoods in Southwest Portland since it assumed the role in 2021.
SWNI still pays to lease office space in the Multnomah Arts Center, despite having no staff and limited capabilities. The board was prepared to discontinue the lease, but will keep its offices there, thanks to donations from an unnamed corporate sponsor.
Still, SWNI’s president said the current plan isn’t sustainable, long-term.
“It’s not a sustainable model,” Mullinax said in the newsletter. “If this decision stands, SWNI must now consider what services the organization will continue to provide without the prospect of City funding.”
Prior to turning down SWNI’s request for reinstated funds, the Civic Life office received a handful of letters from Southwest Portland residents urging the city bureau not to give the embattled organization any public funding.
“I am concerned about the persistent pattern of resistance to equity mandates we still see in SWNI Executive Board members,” Merilee Karr, a physician in the South Burlingame neighborhood, told staff at the Civic Life office. Karr called SWNI’s frequent land use positions worrisome, noting land use regulation has historically been “a method for cementing inequity, literally.”
She said SWNI has used taxpayer funds to evade equity training and oppose housing density, without any mechanism for accountability.
“Taken as a whole, I cannot avoid the conclusion that the worldview of the SWNI Executive Board amounts to the polite racism of the rich,” Karr wrote in her letter to the city. “I have always been proud to be a Portlander. I am ashamed to be in any way represented by this organization.”
Note: This story has been corrected to clarify that SWNI does not currently employ any staff.