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Portland church may lead the way to more affordable housing

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Reverend Julia Nielsen and the congregants of University Park United Methodist Church have decided to erect affordable housing on their church property.Talking about death is never easy.

Resurrection is a kinder subject, full of possibilities, and hope. But in action? Death happens; it rarely demands effort. Resurrection? It just may be the hardest work of all.

A year ago, 12 members of University Park United Methodist Church sat around their church’s fellowship hall. The three-hour church meeting was the last of eight such gatherings called by the Rev. Julia Nielsen, the church’s dynamic, red-haired pastor. “The faithful remnant” is how Nielsen describes the 25 or so who faithfully attend University Park’s Sunday morning services. The church on North Lombard Street is 120 years old and once hosted hundreds. Now, like many Portland mainstream churches, it struggles.

The church struggles with membership, and with funding. But in Nielsen’s eyes there are important ways in which University Park remains strong and viable. It does not struggle with commitment, or a sense of mission, or community. The faithful remnant, as she calls them, are bonded together by a sense of social justice.

And it is those principles that have University Park on the verge of a breakthrough in one of Portland’s most intractable social problems. The city desperately needs more homes for low-income residents. The congregants of University Park have an idea.

Nielsen had called the fellowship hall meetings after previously telling congregants that the United Methodist Church had given her the word — University Park had six months to continue as it has. After that, it either would have begun the process of turning into something else, or it would be closed. But at this meeting she told them that she had met a developer who wanted them to consider the possibility of building an affordable housing apartment complex on their property.

Nielsen led off the evening by reading a passage from the New Testament. That evening’s selection came from 1 John 3:18. “Little children, let us love not in word or speech, but in truth and action,” Nielsen read.

Everybody was then invited to talk about how their church could embody the message of that week’s passage.

Nielsen anticipated a variety of viewpoints. Constructing apartments on church property is not a small thing to ask. Giving up a longtime place of worship is not an easy idea to confront. She expected at least some of those present would opt to delay any decision, to take comfort in an uncertain status quo. But none did. And none chose to let the church die. The vote was unanimous to pursue the building of affordable housing on their property.

Architectural plans have been drawn. United Methodist Church officials are pursuing bank loans. And sometimes Nielsen, unexpectedly, finds herself in the church courtyard entertaining the strangest of thoughts.

“I’m constantly saying, ‘We could be standing in somebody’s living room,’” she says.

The proposal is to build between 24 and 32 apartments and is based on similar projects developer Rob Justus has built for the nonprofit Portland Habilitation Center. Justus is able to build fast, usually in about nine months. That’s largely because his developments don’t take public funding, and aren’t required to meet and document endless requirements that come with taxpayer money. The North Lombard property is already zoned for residential development.

Within six months, church officials say, they could have the University Park project ready to go. And it is that pace, as much as the development itself, which excites Nielsen.

“People perceive the church as slow-moving and out of touch, averse to change,” she says. “Real change is going to be that the church can be visionary and move.”

Justus’ previous affordable housing developments provide modern one-bedroom apartments complete with washers, dryers and granite countertops that rent for as little as $400 a month — almost unheard of in a city where rents for even modest apartments have been skyrocketing.

“What if we led the charge for the city?” Nielsen asks. “What if churches changed the landscape of how to do affordable housing?

Coming together

Providing a home to those who don’t have one has become something of a tradition at University Park. For years, it has been known as a home for the gay community. Until recently, homeless people had been allowed to camp on University Park’s grounds. The city of Portland eventually threatened to fine the church if it did not remove the campers.

Then, earlier this year, University Park opened its doors to the 50 or so congregants of the evangelical St. Johns Covenant Church. St. Johns’ congregants were essentially forced to leave their North Portland building as a result of formally opening its doors to the gay community, according to its pastor, Andy Goebel.

“We were rejected by our denomination,” Goebel says.

University Park initially invited members of St. Johns, now a Disciples of Christ church, to attend services with them. But that quickly has changed to a situation in which both pastors lead services together. That’s no small feat, considering that the liturgies for the evangelical St. Johns Covenant and United Methodists are anything but similar.

But that’s the point, Nielsen says. If two churches with different practices can come together to worship and build affordable housing, she says, why can’t other denominations do the same?

“Honestly, we’re in the business of miracles,” Nielsen says.

It’s all enough to force a man to reconsider his position on faith, says Scott Jensen, a University Park congregant since 2002, well before Nielsen arrived.

“I’m not one of those who believe God does a lot of intervention. I think God is a little busy to worry about the little things,” Jensen says.

But then St. Johns’ congregants lost their home, and University Park, with its tradition of welcoming people of all sexual identities, stepped forward. University Park found the courage to confront its dim future head on, and the affordable housing solution just happened to appear.

“It was like the spirit really had done something.”Jensen says.

Half the cost, half the time, all the benefits

If the United Methodist Church follows through with the plan unanimously approved by the congregants of University Park Church, it will arrange for a loan to build an affordable housing development on church property.

The church will follow the blueprint established by developer Rob Justus and Portland Habilitation Center, a nonprofit that trains and employs people with disabilities.

Justus will construct between 24 and 30 apartments on the church’s North Lombard Street property. The church has agreed to sacrifice its fellowship hall and part of the church courtyard for the development. The church’s sanctuary will remain, available for worship.

Justus says he will be able to build the apartments for around $70,000 a unit — about $1.75 million total. That’s about half to a third of what most affordable housing projects cost, and approximately the size of the loan TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - St. Johns Community Church has joined with University Park and its congregants. Here, both  congregations enjoy a lunch after Sunday worship.United Methodist will need to secure to make the project possible. In time, rents from the apartments will pay off the loan and possibly provide some funding for University Park to maintain its church operation.

United Methodist wouldn’t be considering the project were it not for Justus’ streamlined, government-free model, says Lowell Greathouse, Mission and Ministry coordinator for the United Methodist Church in Oregon and Idaho. The church has no interest in becoming a Community Development Corporation and working with government agencies on complicated funding schemes, Greathouse explains.

“It (Justus’ model) completely changes the conversation and makes it more possible,” Greathouse says.

Greathouse says there are at least a half dozen local Methodist churches that, like University Park, are struggling to survive and own property that could potentially host affordable housing buildings. Many healthier churches that own their property could also consider the idea, he adds.

“It would be a significant way for the church to respond to the needs of our times,” Greathouse says.

Justus says he has already been contacted by other denominations interested in what might occur at University Park.

“It’s a pilot for the Methodists but it’s for the broader church community,” Justus says. “It opens a whole new door. I’ve always felt like the model we’ve created is this kernel of possibility.”

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