THEY STICK UP like tombstones—the pipes, sewer hookups, and electricity boxes of homes that will never be built. Beyond them is an overgrown copse, in what should be tidy backyards, where beer bottles pile up next to a "poop hole" for transients.
Monique Orr points at the lots, only a few dozen feet from her vibrant cul-de-sac off 64th and Killingsworth. When she moved into Helensview Heights last year, she hoped her son's family might follow.
Little did she know her house would be among the last in the below-market-rate development. The nonprofit building the place, HOST Development, was running out of cash. This month, it shut down.
"I hate to see them go," says Orr. "There are so many people who need houses."
Once among Oregon's largest builders of affordable single-family homes, HOST has become just another casualty of a lousy economy. More importantly, it's a powerful reminder for city leaders nursing outsize dreams of putting people in homes faster than the recession can pull them out.
"If nobody's actually producing the houses," said HOST's president, Ted Gilbert, "then what difference does it make?"
News of HOST's demise, after 21 years and hundreds of homes, rippled through City Hall last week—just as officials were teaming with regional leaders and TriMet to seek as much as $5 million from Uncle Sam to plan more affordable housing.
The goal, more specifically, is to help minority communities. At the City Council meeting where the grant was discussed, words like "action" and "equity" took center stage.
Bureaucrats and politicians said Portland might set a national example, finally spreading around the kinds of amenities that had long since propelled the city to the top of so-called "livability" lists.
"If done right, this petition will help Portland look different in 20 years," said Marcus Mundy of the Urban League.
But there was a certain irony in the exuberance. HOST had placed a special emphasis on minority homeownership, wading into Northeast before anybody else had dared. Now they wouldn't be at the table—and there's no one in the wings to replace them.
When HOST—which also worked on the New Columbia development—ran out of cash, it was hell-bent on building 1,000 middle-income homes by 2017. It focused on families making 70 to 80 percent of Portland's median income.
Before land values crashed, suddenly saddling the nonprofit with acres of underwater property, HOST had been burning through reserves and tapping federal grants to build up to 100 homes a year.
That's dozens more than even another motivated builder, Habitat for Humanity, could manage in the same period."Even that was a drop in the bucket compared to the need," says Gilbert.
City housing officials so far are keeping a stiff upper lip, acknowledging the blow but clinging to hopes that other developers might fill the void—especially now that land is cheap.
"HOST made a dent in addressing the minority homeownership gap, and their demise is unfortunate," said Margaret Van Vliet, director of Portland's Housing Bureau. "We're hopeful there will be opportunities for developers of all stripes to step up and continue the work."
Whether those opportunities emerge may hinge on an economic recovery that seems like it might never come.
Gilbert said that even if government helps more with down payments or cuts red tape, no one will build en masse until credit markets unclench and unemployment eases.
He remembers the first home HOST sold, a rehabbed drug house on 9th and Shaver in Northeast Portland. The woman who bought it in 1990 used the newfound equity to start up a business and eventually keep climbing the property ladder.
Years later, when HOST was snapping up land for "Building Blocks," they approached the owner of a large parcel in Southeast and got a surprise. "That same single mom owned all this land," he said. "'You guys gave me my start,' she said. That's what it can mean to some people."
Adam Noble, an unemployed engineer living in Helensview Heights for nearly a year, reflected on his good luck, relatively speaking.
"There was nothing else out there like it," he said. "I can't afford Southeast."