Kiara Vallé is at Portland’s City Hall with her mom, a leader with the Cully Housing Action Team, a group that hopes to prevent homelessness before it happens, by saving existing low-rent mobile homes. (Kristen Hannum/Catholic Sentinel)
Kiara Vallé is at Portland’s City Hall with her mom, a leader with the Cully Housing Action Team, a group that hopes to prevent homelessness before it happens, by saving existing low-rent mobile homes. (Kristen Hannum/Catholic Sentinel)
Portland’s affordable housing crisis is knocking on the door for residents of 34 homes in the Oak Leaf Mobile Home Park in the Cully neighborhood. The owner of that park is planning to sell the property, potentially leaving the mobile homes’ residents, some of whom have already experienced homelessness, homeless again.

Residents and their allies testified at a city budget committee hearing May 12, with parishioners from St. Charles Borromeo and other Northeast Portland Catholic parishes there showing their support.

“There’s nowhere else in city that many of these people can afford to live,” says Gabe Triplett, youth director at St. Charles. “Most pay between $400 and $500 a month.”

“I was already displaced once,” says Renae Corbett, a resident. “I ended up living in my truck for a year.”

“Pope Francis is calling Catholics to be bold in proclaiming the Gospel and performing the corporal works of mercy,” Triplett says.

They’re joining advocates from Living Cully, a neighborhood program, and other advocates in a rally in front of City Hall on May 12.  The city of Portland has monies for affordable housing, and they hope to convince the budget committee that $1.5 million of those funds would be well spent to help the Oak Leaf residents buy the park.

According to Rent Jungle, a company that helps people find apartments, as of February an average apartment within 10 miles of Portland was renting for $1435.

The Cully neighborhood, just south of Portland International Airport, reaching down to the Rose City Cemetery, from Northeast 42nd to 82nd Avenues, is no exception. It’s gentrifying fast, and many property owners are seeing their land values increase at a dizzying pace.

That includes owners of mobile home parks. Oregon law protects renters to the extent that it says owners must notify residents of their intent to sell and give them the opportunity to make an offer.

That law gave CASA of Oregon an opening to help renters become owners. The nonprofit helps residents of mobile home parks buy the parks themselves. Since 2008, the group has converted nine Oregon mobile home parks with 580 spaces to resident ownership.

St. Charles coordinated effort to help the mobile home park residents began when Sister Phyllis Jaszkowiak, pastoral administrator, invited Cameron Herrington, the anti-displacement program coordinator for Living Cully, to speak at St. Charles. People from more than a dozen churches attended the meeting, and they all listened to their neighbors from Cully’s five mobile home parks.

They learned that one in ten Cully resident lived in a mobile home park. These were the people most at risk for homelessness. The residents weren’t theoretical statistics for Triplett and others at the meeting. Some were families who attend Mass at St. Charles. Some come to the church for help with food and other needs. A number of them live with disabilities and chronic diseases. One woman, Renae Corbett, cares for her 80-year-old father, who has cancer. Like Corbett’s father, many are elderly. Some are veterans. Many are undocumented, and especially vulnerable.

“These people losing their homes would tear the relational fabric of our community,” says Triplett. “Seeing that mass displacement would affect everybody.”

The group meeting at St. Charles listened and then spent weeks discerning what they could do to help these neighbors.

“The Catholic Church is in a perfect position to step in and address this problem,” says Triplett. “We come at it from the angle of faith that says justice is more important. We knew we have to be humble enough to listen, and now we have to find the courage to stand behind them.”

CASA and the group believe that empowered residents will take better care of the property where they live than a landlord will. “They will do better at running the parks and keeping them good for families,” he says.

Triplett says mobile home park renters list concerns like their trailers sitting on uneven ground, raw sewage and electrical dangers. “We want to fix it up and make it a livable spot,” he says.

St. Charles’ youth group, together with Habitat for Humanity, CASA and other groups, have already worked with a parishioner living in one of the trailers. She had a roof that was collapsing. A local contractor took the lead and that parishioner now has a solid roof over her head.

Triplett says such works of mercy are part of why he loves St. Charles. “Everyone is welcome at the table here,” he says. “Cully is the most diverse neighborhood in the state of Oregon. It’s a landing zone. And so St. Charles naturally became a welcoming place. It’s not born out of ideology but rather faith. It’s not magic, our faith doesn’t make everything easy. But it helps us listen to Pope Francis and to really hear.”