Portland is a wonderful place to live. My family has lived here for 11 years and we love it. From Powell’s Books, to Forrest Park, to Voodoo Doughnuts, we have it all. And others agree.

Portland has received a lot of media attention.  Headlines like, “Best American City,” “ Most Livable City,”  “The Greenest City,”  fill publications.

But this past year we have been in the news for being at the top of some other lists, too.

Highest Rental Price Increase.”  “Lowest rental vacancy rate in the nation.” “Most gentrified city of the century!” “Lowest high school graduation rates in nation.”

Portland is a great place to live if you make enough money, but it’s an increasingly difficult place to live if you don’t.  This is a concern for families today, and I’m concerned what it means for my kids in the future. Will they be able to afford to live here? And even if they can, will they want to?

Many people at our event today are fortunate to make enough to enjoy all the things that make Portland great. So, why should you care? Because Portland can’t be great when we leave people behind.

As housing prices rise, people are being forced to move out of the central city and into underserved neighborhoods with lower rents.  And this migration affects everyone.

Here is the thing, jobs are still located in the central city. The bus driver that gets you to work, the barista that serves your morning latte, the clerk at New Seasons, your kid’s teacher at Lincoln High School, they now have to commute much farther to get to work, and traffic on our highways is getting significantly worse.

These same families are forced to move year after year, in search of affordable rent, which means kids are transferring in and out of classrooms.  These transfers don’t just affect the kids moving, they disrupt every kid in the classroom. This affects entire schools!

As poverty increases because housing costs keep going up, but wages do not, crime rises. Crime costs everyone.  I recently heard that just one block in the Rockwood neighborhood is costing taxpayers over $1M a year to incarcerate residents.  $1M a year for just one single block!

And as more families are forced to live in moldy, leaky, overcrowded housing, because it’s all they can afford, all of our health care costs go up, too. I heard a pediatrician speak recently.  She said that she sees healthy housing as a vaccine, and wished she could prescribe kids decent housing for their respiratory problems, because no amount of medication can help if there is mold in your home.

Is this really the city we want to live in? One where we elevate neighborhoods but force residents to move out?

Here at Habitat the answer is no.  We want to give people the opportunity to stay.

The reason I’ve been with Habitat for over 22 years is because I see how safe, affordable housing gives families the opportunity to stay, and have stability.

Take the Wasongolo family. Mr. Wasongolo and his wife Salome had the opportunity to come to America 11 years ago, to flee civil war in their home county — The Democratic Republic of the Congo.  They wanted to create a better life for their five children and America offered a fresh start.  However, once they got here they quickly struggled to make ends meet. The median income of African immigrants in Multnomah County is only $26,000/year.  This is not enough to get by.

The Wasongolo’s applied to Habitat and purchased their home in 2007, in North Portland with Habitat’s 0%-interest mortgage. This was not a handout, like all Habitat families, they put in 500 hours of sweat equity building their home. They participated in Habitat’s classes in financial fitness and home maintenance, and now every mortgage payment they make goes back to Habitat into our Revolving Fund for Humanity, to build more homes, so more families can stay in their neighborhoods.

Mr. Wasongolo came by the office a few weeks ago to drop off his mortgage payment and he told me his two oldest kids are now both in college. One is studying nursing and the other mechanical engineering. The twins, who were about three years old when they moved into the home, are now in 6th grade and one of them just won a big prize for a speech he gave.

If you ask Mr. Wasongolo what he credits his family’s success to, he won’t say his job, or luck.  He will say his family has been successful because of homeownership. Their kids didn’t have to worry about moving schools. Affordable mortgage payments meant they didn’t have to worry about paying other bills. Having a home gave the Wasongolos the opportunity to stay.

Alice Green grew up in northeast Portland, but despite working for Tri-met, finding a decent, affordable home for her and her son was challenging. In 1999, Alice was given an opportunity to stay by purchasing a home with Habitat in the King neighborhood, not too far from here.

And this January, Alice came into our office to make a mortgage payment.  But this time it was different.  This time it was her final mortgage payment. This wasn’t a hand out — Alice did all the work, made all the payments.  She was simply given an opportunity to stay in her neighborhood. I asked Alice what she plans to do now that her home is paid off, and she said that she plans to stay in it forever.  She loves her community.  She feels relieved she won’t have to move now that her neighborhood is more expensive. Some of her friends and family haven’t been so fortunate. You see, the King neighborhood had the highest rise in house prices in our entire city last year.

And this isn’t the only neighborhood to have a dramatic increase in the cost of housing.

Cully is a neighborhood where current residents are most at risk of being displaced due to gentrification. We are working with the City and other organizations to improve Cully with a new park, street improvements, and bringing in new businesses. But it’s only good if the current residents get the chance to benefit from it, not become displaced because of it, like what has happened in many other neighborhoods.  Through the Living Cully Coalition, Habitat is investing in the current residents so they can rise with the neighborhood.

Not only is Habitat getting ready to build 21 homes in Cully, but we are now also helping low income families at risk of losing the home they already own because they can’t afford critical repairs.

Take Yondella Hall, a family advocate for LifeWorks Northwest, and has owned her home in Cully for four years.  She loves Cully. But awhile back she noticed a significant leak in her roof.  When Habitat got to her house we realized that her issues were much greater than just needing a new roof.  There were structural problems with the back porch and gutters.  When it rained all the water would flood her foundation, which causes serious long term damage.

Habitat got right to work, replacing the roof, new gutters, and regrading her yard.  We even linked her up with one of our living Cully partners, Verde, who installed a Rain Garden in her front yard, which also helps direct runoff to sustain a beautiful plant garden.

Yondella said she used to be worried her roof would collapse every time it rained. Now she says she looks forward to the rain because she is excited to see her rain garden grow.

Habitat has given Yondella the opportunity to stay.

We need to envision a new future for our city. One where we elevate the neighborhoods but also elevate the people who live in them.  Because if we truly love our city we won’t leave people behind.

Today, we can create new headlines.  Headlines like, “Portland, Affordable for All Families.” Today you can make this vision a reality. You can give people the opportunity to stay.

– Steve Messinetti, President & CEO, Habitat for Humanity Portland/Metro East