A historic affordable housing project for urban Natives is underway in Portland

In response to a housing crisis in which incomes are significantly lower than living costs, the Confederated Tribe of Siletz Indians has teamed up with Native organizations in Portland to build their own affordable apartment complex. ‘Nesika Illahee’, they call it. That’s Chinook for ‘Our Place’. Photo: www.communitydevpartners.com

Confederated Tribe of Siletz Indians partners with local Indigenous organizations to build a 59-unit affordable housing complex with units for Portland's urban Native population

The housing crisis is worse than you think, and for Natives, it’s even worse than that.

According to “Out of Reach 2019,” a recent report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a full-time worker earning minimum wage “cannot afford a two-bedroom rental home at fair market rent in any U.S. county and can afford a one-bedroom rental in fewer than 99% of counties” across the nation.

The gap between wages and rents has widened to the point that “a worker earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, must work 127 hours every week (3 full-time jobs) to afford a modest two-bedroom rental home,” based on an average rent of $1,194 per month.

The Pacific Coast and the Eastern Seaboard have particularly inequitable housing. In Oregon, the wage needed to afford a two-bedroom home is $22.97 per hour. Actual state minimum wage is half that, $11.25 per hour, and rents in Portland have increased 20 times faster than income since 2015. As a result, many low-income families spend over half their incomes on rent to avoid homelessness. Over four thousand people are sleeping on the streets while an estimated 16,000 apartments stand empty around them.

“People find it surprising how many folks experiencing homelessness have income. They just can’t get into housing,” says Matt Olguin, Director of Shelter Services for Transition Projects, a Portland organization serving people experiencing homelessness. “Subsidized-housing waitlists are four or five years long.”

Native American presence among Oregon’s homeless is 3.5 times higher than Native presence in the population overall.

Response from Portland’s Native organizations: build ‘Our Place’ ourselves

In response to this crisis, the Confederated Tribe of Siletz Indians has teamed up with Native organizations in Portland to build their own affordable apartment complex. ‘Nesika Illahee’, they call it. That’s Chinook for ‘Our Place’.

Community Development Partners, an urban development group focused on sustainable and community-engaged housing solutions, has partnered with Siletz to develop the project. 

It’s intended to “[c]reate a community to serve the Native American population in Portland utilizing an unprecedented (for an urban, off-reservation development) funding source, Indian Housing Block Grant, and programming that is culturally specific in partnership with Oregon’s leading Native American organizations,” according to CDP’s website. 

“The project goals are to address disparities in access to affordable housing for Native Americans; provide culturally specific services to residents; provide medical, dental and behavioral health care for all residents.”

New building offers low rents, cultural programming, and culturally specific medical care

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Medical, dental, and behavioral health care services will be provided on-site to residents through the Native American Rehabilitation Association at ‘Nesika Illahee’ Photo: www.communitydevpartners.com

Medical, dental, and behavioral health care services will be provided on-site to residents through the Native American Rehabilitation Association (NARA), which has clinics and facilities across the city. Also partnering with the Siletz tribe is the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA), which serves as Portland’s intertribal cultural hub.

“Displacement is a major problem in the Native American community due to increasing rental and housing costs and low household incomes,” says Paul Lumley, Executive Director at NAYA. “Nesika Illahee will be a step towards bringing Native community members closer to NAYA, the historic site of the Neerchokikoo tribal village.”

NAYA, which many Native families rely on for schooling, early education playgroups, adult classes, and cultural events, is less than half a mile from the construction site that will soon be Nesika Illahee. The three-story building, designed by Carleton Hart Architecture, includes 59 studio, one-, two-, and three-bedroom homes. Twenty of these will be reserved for Natives enrolled in any federally recognized tribe. Rents are based on state income restrictions, and the program will comply with fair housing laws.

Nesika Illahee has also released a call for artists, via Kimberly Kent Brokerage and Tribal Liaison Phillip Hillaire, to submit proposals for public sculpture, murals, and interior artworks that are “reflective of the Native American culture and spirit”.

Precedent-setting development set to open in November

Barring delays, the building is scheduled to open its doors in November. Siletz Tribal Chairman Dolores Pigsley describes it as an affordable housing opportunity that will “benefit tribal citizens for many years to come.”

Dolores Pigsley
Siletz Tribal Chairman Dolores Pigsley 

Portland may no longer be the affordable Pacific city it once was, and Nesika Illahee breaks ground in a time of great need. With roughly 40,000 Native citizens from tribes across Turtle Island, both enrolled and non-enrolled, Portland has the ninth-largest population of urban Natives in the nation. A mere 20 to 59 apartments may be a drop in the bucket compared to this, but it sets an encouraging precedent. 

The project could serve as an example for future developments in other cities that will help urban Natives maintain access to affordable housing across the nation.

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Brian Oaster is a Choctaw writer and seventh generation survivor of the Trail of Tears living in the Pacific Northwest. He studied international experimental animation. Follow him on Twitter: @brianoaster.

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