Amid a homeless crisis and affordable housing shortage, the site of a future affordable housing building in downtown Portland is being celebrated as the latest example of a “housing-first” approach.

The Fairfield Apartments at Southwest Harvey Milk Street and 11th Avenue is currently being gutted for renovation and construction, but by early 2025, developers expect the site will be home to nearly 75 people moving out of homelessness. The building dates back to 1911. 

Leaders with Portland’s housing authority, Home Forward, elected officials, and representatives from the Urban League of Portland convened at the site Thursday, June 29, to celebrate a multi-agency collaboration that led to the building being purchased and remodeled as deeply affordable units.

“Like all of the affordable housing developments Home Forward leads, the Fairfield Apartments wouldn't be possible without a lot of partnerships,” Ivory Matthews, Home Forward’s CEO, said Thursday. Matthews touched on the city’s history and future, underscoring a commitment to serving those who are often most vulnerable to homelessness.

“It is incredible to stand here today on Harvey Milk Street and think about the history that has passed for us. Portland is a beautiful city with a very complicated past,” Matthews said. “We've seen trouble and racism and violence, but we have also seen our city persevere against the worst of its history to build the beautiful community that we love today. The Fairfield stands on the crossroads of so much of Portland's past and its future.”

The Fairfield Apartments is a preservation project of Home Forward. The project cost about $35.8 million, according to city figures, with the Portland Housing Bureau kicking in $6.5 million. Thanks to a push from Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, as well as Oregon Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici, the project received $2 million in federal housing funds. 

  U.S. Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici presents a symbolic $2 million check to
Ivory Matthews, CEO of Home Forward. Courtney vaughn

The city of Portland bought the building in 2010. Earlier this year, the city transferred it to Home Forward so the agency could continue operating it as an affordable housing site. It’s currently undergoing seismic upgrades and other needed renovation. Once complete in mid-2024, the site will offer 66 single rooms for rent and nine studio apartments. The building will have a shared kitchen and shared bathrooms outside the units, with a community room and computer with internet access, as well as on-site laundry. 

Most units will be affordable to tenants making less than $7,000 a year–30 percent of the city’s median income, according to federal housing affordability metrics—and offer supportive services on site, thanks to Urban League of Portland. The mixed-use building will also feature retailers on the ground level. Prosper Portland, the city’s economic development agency, will manage the commercial spaces in the building. 

“This project will help to prevent the displacement of highly vulnerable individuals in our community,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said Thursday. 

Wheeler said the Fairfield Apartments reminded him of the spirit and legacy of Nick Fish, a former Portland city commissioner. Before Fish’s death in early 2020, he set a goal for the city to create 2,000 units of permanent, supportive housing.

The mayor said the city has "followed diligently in his footsteps."

When construction wraps up, Home Forward will give first priority to Black tenants exiting homelessness who request culturally-specific services, with preference given to women and LGBTQ+ people in need of stable housing.

It’s the latest example of a “housing-first” approach to addressing homelessness, which prioritizes getting people into stable housing before connecting them with services and employment opportunities.

The Fairfield building marked the third groundbreaking celebration for Urban League of Portland in as many months. The organization is rooted in social services and justice for Black Portlanders. In April, Urban League celebrated the opening of the Hattie Redmond apartments in North Portland, once again partnering with Home Forward. The Hattie Redmond site will also serve tenants who were formerly homeless.

Urban League has pushed for developing deeply affordable units like those at the Hattie Redmond and Fairfield, as a solution to getting people off the streets. The organization has been critical of the city’s recent moves to ban and criminalize sleeping outside. 

Denetta Monk of Urban League of Portland speaks at a groundbreaking
celebration for the Fairfield Apartments on June 29. Courtney vaughn

For Denetta Monk, Urban League’s associate vice president of programs, the project marks hope, and a path toward restoring the version of Portland she grew up in.

“Seeing work like this happen really gives me hope that I’ll see the same Portland I saw when I was young, where you see less stress… of people who are suffering every day.”