Francis Kham, Fr. Ted Prentice and developer Rob Justus pray during a groundbreaking for a Southeast Portland low cost housing project that will in part serve Zomi refugees from Myanmar. (Courtesy Terri Fessler Boris/St. Joseph the Worker Parish)
Francis Kham, Fr. Ted Prentice and developer Rob Justus pray during a groundbreaking for a Southeast Portland low cost housing project that will in part serve Zomi refugees from Myanmar. (Courtesy Terri Fessler Boris/St. Joseph the Worker Parish)
Francis Kham, a recent immigrant from Myanmar, is nothing if not persistent. Having escaped the oppression and ruthless leadership of Myanmar’s (formerly Burma) military government in 2015, Kham and his wife sought safety and freedom in Portland, where Catholic Charities of Oregon’s resettlement program assisted them in meeting basic needs those first years.

They had fled a junta that threatens and persecutes Catholics from Kham’s minority ethnic group, the Zomi. However, even with the assistance of others, Kham and the growing Portland Zomi population — now estimated at 600 — have found it a challenge to integrate into American culture, acquire jobs and locate affordable housing. Kham himself overcame the setbacks and challenges of being a stranger in a strange land and now sits on the board of directors at Catholic Charities. He wants to help his people move forward.

One day in a board meeting, he heard Deacon Rick Birkel, now the former executive director of Catholic Charities, discuss a company that builds affordable housing for underserved communities. The information stopped Kham short. Rent and mortgage prices in and around Portland have jumped dramatically over the past years, so much so that many residents are unable to find adequate shelter. Kham saw an opportunity and felt the Holy Spirit spurring him on. He drove to the offices of Home First Development that day, knocked on the door, introduced himself and pleaded his cause.

Rob Justus, in partnership with Ben Pray, is the founder and co-owner of the firm, which develops housing for those priced out of other options. Kham appealed to Justus and Pray repeatedly, organizing novena after novena with his fellow Zomi. In the end, Home First in partnership with Green Light Development agreed to take on the project and to build affordable units for the Zomi and others of limited income.

The chief roadblock, however, was finding and acquiring land. When a church on Southeast 148th Avenue just south of Burnside closed, Justus and Pray saw their opportunity. They purchased the 2.18-acre parcel. After more months of negotiations and planning they were able to break ground this spring.

Kham asked that his pastor at nearby St. Joseph the Worker Parish, Father Ted Prentice, bless the project. About 50 people circled the uneven ground under a sun pressing through thick rain clouds and prayed with Father Prentice as he sprinkled holy water and read a blessing, consecrating the site. The group then performed the traditional groundbreaking ceremonies, complete with hardhats and shovels, posing for photos with jubilant smiles.

The structures will be named the Lawrence Apartments, after Pray’s father and for St. Lawrence, patron saint of the poor. The buildings will be composed of 96 one-, two-, and three-bedroom units. Seventy-five units will be rented to families earning 60% of the area’s median income, 11 units will be for renters earning 50%, and 10 for those earning 30%. A 2,000-square-foot community room with a covered patio will allow residents to hold gatherings, religious events or other meetings. Solar-ready EV stations, 71 parking spaces and secure indoor bike parking are part of the site, as are support from case managers in the fields of health care, disability services and more.

Units will be air conditioned and have LED lighting, low-flow fixtures, quartz countertops, keyless entries and low emission paint.

More than 50 units have been reserved for members of the Zomi community.

Fessler Boris is administrative assistant at St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Southeast Portland and a Catholic Sentinel ambassador.