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February 2nd, 2011 REBECCA JACOBSON | Housing
 

House United

What a worker-owned restaurant is doing about the housing crisis.

news5_jessicaStambach_3713COLLECTIVE SOUL: The Red and Black’s John Langley (far right) approached Emily Kamm about using the cafe’s second floor for a housing co-op. Daniel Wilson (middle) plans to live in one of the newly created units. - IMAGE: Jessica Stambach
In a city with an estimated shortage of 20,000 affordable housing units, every new project in Portland helps, even if it’s only a few units.

“Affordable housing is really needed, and it’s something a lot of people don’t have access to,” says Emily Kamm, whose rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Southeast Portland’s Buckman neighborhood eats up about 60 percent of her $1,400 monthly income as a primary advocate at a domestic violence shelter.

Kamm has been working for months with Portland Collective Housing, a member-owned, resident-controlled housing nonprofit, to locate a space to establish a new resident-managed housing cooperative.

“In so many areas people can feel disempowered—their job doesn’t give them autonomy or their landlord doesn’t respond to their concerns,” says Kamm, 22. “Collectives and organizations that give control back to the people are a really great model.”

That’s also the belief of the Red and Black Cafe, a vegan, worker-owned coffee bar and restaurant.

As reported in last week’s Murmurs, the Red and Black wants to buy its building at 400 SE 12th Ave. and convert the second floor, now occupied by offices, into low-income group housing for about a half-dozen people. The cafe will continue to occupy the first floor.

Co-owner John Langley says this week that the cafe has raised the $50,000 down payment necessary to secure the purchase. In an owner-financed deal, the Red and Black will pay $500,000 for the two-story, golden-yellow house, which was built in 1874 as a hotel. 

Langley approached Kamm in October about using the second floor for her collective. Kamm leapt at the offer. With help from PCH, she and other future residents will launch their own housing nonprofit to manage the upstairs space.

“I think there is absolutely a role for that kind of housing,” says Portland Housing Bureau director Margaret Van Vliet. “Can they run into challenges like any landlord? Sure. Owning real estate is a serious business, and it can be hard sometimes, but if they’ve got a good model of making decisions and sharing responsibility and doing it collaboratively without government interference, I don’t see any reason a group like this can’t have success.”

Though the recession has driven up demand for affordable housing, Langley says the economic climate didn’t drive this plan. Langley has lived since 2006 at a PCH-owned house on North Mississippi Avenue (PCH also owns a house on Southeast 25th Avenue). What distinguishes this cooperative model from other forms of affordable housing, Kamm says, is that residents living above the Red and Black will share cleaning duties, hold regular meetings and make decisions based on consensus. 

“People are already sharing housing in order to save costs,” Kamm says. “But what is special about a collective housing model is that people are coming into it intentionally wanting to have processes in place for communication and for decision-making.”

Most affordable housing options in Portland are rentals, which are subject to rent increases and ownership changes. PCH, as well as the new nonprofit that plans to form above the Red and Black, say their model ensures sustainable, affordable rents. Kamm expects rent to run $365 a month or less for a room, with a maximum monthly contribution of $70 to cover utilities and household supplies, including bulk food staples for the shared kitchen.

Langley acknowledges the impact of collectively owned housing co-ops in Portland remains small. Getting the capital to buy buildings remains a significant barrier—particularly when dealing with low-income residents, who can contribute little to a start-up fund.

Entrenched stereotypes are another obstacle, Langley says. The Red and Black attracted national attention after kicking out a cop from its cafe in May 2010, heightening perceptions of the cafe as a collection of anarchist radicals. Kamm says others may hear the word “cooperative” and imagine “Kumbaya”-humming hippies. 

“We do run in a way that is anarchist, but once you actually see how that works, it’s not that weird,” Langley says. “People are doing this anyway without labeling it that way. If they have house meetings and make decisions together, that’s pretty much the same thing.”

 
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