Tag Archives: housing

chased from the garden of home

It was a Sunday. Corey and Cherie Nelson were watching TV when they heard a strange rumbling. Cherie jumped up and went out to the deck.

The door opened to a sweeping view of a pristine river canyon. Surrounded by large firs in the Cascade foothills, the braided Washougal river rushed along the far bank to sip on creeks and waterfalls, and a smaller, slower channel meandered along the edge of the ravine just sixty feet below, right under the Nelsons’ deck. For two and a half years, they have spent countless hours taking in their personal theatre of classic Pacific Northwest scenery.

The pungent scent of fresh dirt filled Cherie’s nostrils. Steam rose like woodsmoke from where the yard used to be. The landslide had exposed the tangled roots of their massive Douglas fir, thick wet tentacles unplugged from their earthen life support.

Cherie knew in that instant that her life had changed. But she did not want to admit it.

Corey joined her on the deck. It took half a second for him to realize the same. He wrapped his arms around her.

“It’s going to be okay, baby,” he said. Corey says he’s always trying to make Cherie feel better, trying to fix things, but that he knew deep down, they just lost their dream home.

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After their daughters moved out, Corey and Cherie wanted to move into a smaller home. Not just a smaller home, but the home in which they could happily spend the rest of their days. For years they searched for the perfect spot. They put in offers on places that they’re glad now didn’t pan out, because a little house on a high bank of the Washougal River, just downstream from Naked Falls, where they fell in love more than forty years ago, whispered, welcome

Buying the place was complicated. The property belonged to the bank, and the process of purchasing took months of negotiations and back and forth about how the old septic tanks needed to be replaced before they could move in, then a whole summer of actual work. They sold the farmhouse in which they raised three daughters, and Corey cashed in on his thirty-five years of setting tile in million-dollar houses to make the sale happen.

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Nevertheless, the couple was essentially homeless for four months, luckily supported by aunts and daughters with spare couches, while the old septic system was dug up and new “biogreen”  tanks put in the ground. But their waiting to land full circle back at their teenage stomping grounds was not always patient. Cherie says she was “done” being strung all over the place.

“I wanted the comfort of a home home.”

Before they moved in, Cherie would lie down in the grass of her would-be home, and imagined her roots going deep into the ground. She prayed to the spirit of the Native American people for a blessing to steward the land, to protect and enhance it.

“I just wanted to be worthy of this place,” Cherie says.

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Corey and I work together, remodeling houses in Lake Oswego. When he’s not around, building contractors talk about the mastery and humility with which he works. They vie for his schedule, say that he doesn’t charge enough. He’s quiet, unassuming, kind. Wears a tawny pony tail, gray at the roots. When he lets his beard grow scruffy, it betrays the youth in his face.

A few weeks ago, on a quiet afternoon in someone else’s big empty house, he told me the story of how he was losing his dream home, the place into which he’d invested everything he had worked for, because a landslide dropped half his yard into the river rapids below.

I balked, and as he spoke, I nearly teared up. Naïvely, I didn’t want to believe that could happen because I didn’t want to believe that I could work my entire life to finally feel like I belonged somewhere—my struggle since toddlerhood—only to watch the place I’d worked to find myself collapse like Jenga blocks into a ravine.

“Are you saying the foundation is slipping out from under your dreams,” I asked. I tried to skirt around how deeply I resonated with his story by saying that I thought that a lot of people in this country could relate to what he and his wife were going through right now. Metaphorically, of course.

I asked if I could come out and see it for myself. I wanted to see what home looked like for them, and how they dealt with losing it.

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The weather was supposed to be party sunny. I rode my motorcycle from inner SE Portland and headed for Washougal. The sun didn’t last long. On the 205 bridge, high winds from the gorge threatened to push my bike sideways into the box truck in the next lane, or forcibly remove me backwards from the seat. I tightened my grip and loosened my shoulders, because that’s what you do when the winds of change become gales.

Becoming homeless is no fable to me. It is not something that just happens to bad people, or addicts. It has happened to me, over and over again, in different forms, making my sense of home an ambivalent quest for an unknown grail. Maybe I’ve had many homes, more than all my fingers and toes; maybe I’ve had none, and simply floated between places to lay my sleeping bag, occasionally landing for a few months, maybe a couple of years. Times when I’ve really had it good, really felt like I was home, I’ve tightened my grip, wanting to not lose it. But a place has its way of shrugging us off when the time comes.

Now, I’m tentative to love a place too much. At 30, I’ve lived in Portland for four years, twice longer than anywhere else in my life. I’m trying to loosen my death grip on a good thing, to be open to other options. Maybe soon I’ll take a reprieve from the city and do the Thoreau thing for a while. But what place would I be worthy of?

From town, Washougal River Road follows the idyllic river upstream through the foothills of the Cascades north of the Columbia. The farther out I ride, the more familiar the landscape becomes. Dilapidated houses sink into the earth farther and farther apart from each other on scraggly forested land. Shoddy fences surround dead playground equipment and doghouses whose shingles have been torn off. Washing machines sit in driveways; some operable, others bound for the trip to the dump that will never happen. Antique, tireless tractors decorate the field edges of thumbprint-sized farms.

I was raised in rural communities so much like the outskirts of Washougal that on my ride out River Road, I silently name the year, make and model of most broken down trucks I see that littered the Trump/Pence-postered yards as they pass through my periphery. On many levels, I feel like I know this place intimately, which is one reason I live in the city.

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When I park in the Nelsons’ driveway, I notice the driveway is flanked by a half dozen brown and silver tarps covering what is left of a small yard. Anchored by tent stakes and sandbags, the tarps should delay the erosion of the driveway long enough for the couple to move out, walk away, hand back the house to the other bank.

From their deck, which is barely large enough for five or six chairs, I take in the gorgeous panorama. The land across from us gushes water from three creeks within a hundred yards upstream from a waterfall tall and wide as the Nelsons’ house. Chimney smoke billows from a neighbor’s blue house, near the waterfall. The trees sway. An eagle glides by.

This place, to me, is fantastically beautiful. I feel like I’m in a postcard slice of the PNW relegated to Instagram and the dreams of Bay Area refugees, the wilder tracts of our bioregion cityfolks feel they must prepare to visit with expensive trips to REI.

Corey welcomes me in. I take off my wet gear and realize that after two years, I’ve never seen the man outside work. We hug each other for the first time. Cherie offers me hot tea. They describe how they stand out on the deck together and watch eagles soar beneath wildly morphing clouds; how the full moon rises every month over the hill on the far side of the river;  how the trees in autumn change color and drop leaves into a river effusive with winter’s first rains.

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They tell me about the landslide, how they went from ‘set for life’ to homeless and soon-to-be bankrupt in three seconds. For days after the slide, Cherie says she could hardly breathe. She didn’t sleep for two weeks.

Don’t you have any recourse, or any way to repair the bank, I ask.

“That first day, I called a builder I’ve known for twenty years,” Corey says. He gave them options. They called an excavator, who said he couldn’t get the proper machinery where he needed it, and didn’t want to put his employees at risk trying. A geotech engineer came up with a hundred-thousand-dollar solution that, if that kind of money was just lying around, they would do. But it’s not. Besides, Cherie says, fixing the bank isn’t even important at this point.

“I don’t feel safe here anymore,” she says.

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What is home, if you don’t feel safe there? My own answer is that it is no longer home, a truth I’ve come to more than once about a particular house, town, and recently, a nation post-election. In the latter case, however, I’m not tempted to leave this time so much as I am to dig in and create a home for myself. But the thought of doing so after being here gives me pause.

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The house is impressively compact and spacious at the same time. Inside and out, it screams Tiny House, built 50 years before Tiny Houses became cool. Their loft bedroom sets above the bathroom and kitchen. Crystal-studded altars, buddha statues and small goddesses live throughout the space. The couches are super comfortable. It’s as large a house as I could ever want. During our conversation, I find myself distracted by the natural beauty outside the huge square windows. On the sill, I notice an ancient stone tool, or three of them.

“We found that thing when we started digging in the garden,” Corey says. “I know it’s not natural.”

I pick up a rough stone pestle about 8” long, and turn it this way and that. At first glance I think it could have come right out of a riverbed, but the phallic tool is too refined for that. Three potato chip-shaped indents serve as comfortable grips for a thumb and two fingers. I’ve seen things like it only in museums.

I’m reminded of Cherie’s comment about stewarding the land. It impresses me how we humans play games of ownership and development with different intentions: to one person, a tract of land represents only money; to someone else, a hillside is the history and spirit of generations of people, just one in a community of subjects: plants, animals, microbes, stones, all in relation to one another.

Before I leave, I help Corey load a futon into the back of his truck. I sense the peace around leaving is not yet pervasive. For saying that they’re leaving this week, I see little evidence of packing.

They’re debating whether they need to bury the stone tools back in the garden.

“I think we should leave them here,” Corey says.

For two and a half years, Cherie and Corey stewarded this piece of land, called it home, enjoyed every mile of the long commute to and from the Portland area. Home meant, for them, a permanent vacation, a source of constant gratitude.

That’s part of her confusion.

“I wonder, did I do something wrong?” Cherie says, tears welling in her eyes. “Was I taking it for granted? I don’t think I was. I was very present, all the time. Always thinking of ways to beautify it and make it better. Did I not show enough gratitude?”

Corey reaches over to comfort her. He takes her into his arms.

“I think I did,” she says.

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To the Money, Say Aye!

The first item on the Portland City Council’s agenda yesterday afternoon was to pat their own backs on a city budget job well done. Elaborate thank you speeches preluded official approval, monologues that emphasized not just the hard work of city officials, but the council’s proclaimed high value for public commentary.

“We make changes in our budget based on what we hear from the public,” Council President Nick Fish said.

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Fish has been counting the number of people in the last year who have testified before city council on budget issues regarding city utilities.

“A total of one person throughout the entire budget process came and testified publicly about the business of our utilities,” he said (emphasis mine).

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For as much gripe and complaint as I hear about the changes in Portland, whether it be about affordable housing, the newly voter-approved 10 cent gas tax to fix roads, or gentrification, the Council, a relevant and powerful audience for this dialogue works and meets in City Hall, a gorgeous building serving at least as a façade of free speech and democracy.

Then again, with national elections reflecting fascism and oligarchy more clearly than than our glorious purported democracy, the average citizen’s motivation to speak to local government is understandably low. In fact, the city council chambers were pretty empty during the budget approval meeting. My wife and I were amongst the only people there in causal clothing, which told me that 1) everyone but us knew to dress up for city council meetings, or 2) most of the few people present were intimately involved with the proceedings, or paid to be there.

No one publicly testified about any of the three topics City Council discussed.

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Last week, we talked about the Comprehensive Plan, which accounts for many of the biggest changes to Portland’s cityscape over the next 20 years.

City Council approved three minor amendments to the Comp Plan, which focused on communication with Metro about clarifying terms in Title IV and Title VII of the Plan. The council is set to finally approve it on 15 June, which will trigger, amongst other things, construction on the Green Loop, the rezoning of single family homes to multi-family dwelling units near neighborhood centers, and the implementation of inclusionary zoning laws, which require developers to create a percentage of affordable units in new housing developments.

For two years running, Portland has had the luxury of a substantial surplus in its budget. The council admits that the surplus will “not continue forever,” but claims that it has made “significant investment in the most compelling issue of the moment.” In 2015, it was transportation…”this year, it is housing and homelessness.”

The Council also heard a presentation from the Portland Housing Bureau about the Consolidated Plan, a 5-year agenda to increase affordable housing choices, economic opportunity, and reduce homelessness. PHB funnels millions from various federal housing agencies (ESG, HUD) to educate and assist homeowners in house repairs and employment training and empowerment, and also allocates money from HOPWA to assist those suffering from AIDS to find housing.

Citing Portland’s proclaimed primacy on housing and homelessness issues, Commissioner Fish criticized the federal government for its misplacing its housing priorities.

The complete budget of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is plus or minus 40 billion dollars, Fish said.

“It is wonderful that we get these funds…” he continued, “and it seems to me that allocating a mere 40 billion for all the housing needs of everyone not currently covered by the market is woefully inadequate.

Commissioner Fritz reflected that despite Portland’s surplus of funds, there is still more work to do.fritz

“It is our job to make sure we spend the taxpayers money wisely,” Fritz said, before briefly diverging into unsubtle presidential soapboxing.

“Government needs to pay for the services that only government can pay for,” she continued. “We are still not doing that. There is a lot we have still not done with this budget, but we’ve done as much as we can, and I think we’ve done the best we can with what we have available.”

Whether Fritz was referring to the city’s surplus of funds being insufficient to cover all of the city’s needs, or that the work being done with that surplus was insufficient to use them in the best way possible, was unclear. 

Pulse of Old Portland: Kevin Ketchum

“Four years ago,” he says, cupping a soft, meaty hand near his sternum, “I had a beard down to here.”

With a more-pepper-than-salt ponytail, Kevin Ketchum is clean-shaven, wearing a blue and green plaid button-up over a blue t-shirt. I tell myself he has dressed up for our interview.

Immediately I want to ask about those razorless years, during which he must have watched Portland change immensely from the outside in, as the buildings rose around his slapdash sidewalk nest. Did he stand on street corners with a cardboard sign, training for the vaguely elevated caste he’s attained of Street Roots Vendor? And if so, what did the cardboard read? Who stopped for him? What kept him from taking advantage of Portland’s inexhaustible resources for the homeless and depraved? What finally inspired him to shave?

Ketchum’s chaliced hand, held under his heart, slowly drops. His uncertain smile twists, and falls. Perspiration forms across his kind, round face.

I do not know if the sensitivity I feel right now is his, or mine. It may be both.

I am not a veteran interviewer, nor a seasoned, scales-for-skin journalist. In fact, since we met here for coffee in the Westmoreland neighborhood, I have mostly projected my stories upon him, as passerby are wont to do, when I asked him specifically to share his:

Ketchum was born and raised in Portland, and never really left. In the early Eighties, just out of high school, he worked at the Hilton downtown, paid $155—half a paycheck—for a studio on SE 12th and Belmont. The building is still there. Rent has risen since then, just slightly.

Back then, Huey Lewis and the News rattled the radio, and Ronald Reagan occupied the oval office.

“That was when you first started seeing people sleeping in their cars,” he says, looking out the window. Eye contact between us is rare.

Were there no homeless people?

Ketchum remembers “bums, winos and transients” living under the Burnside bridge, but seeing families sleep in cars in the Reagan years was his first evidence that the economics had changed.

“When families are sleeping in cars,” he says, “you have a more serious condition. People aren’t choosing that.”

Rents were not skyrocketing then; jobs just seemed to vanish. Evictions arrived, people moved outside.

When did you lose your job?

“I did alright in the Eighties. I did restaurant work, and when I lost a job, I was always able to get back in.”

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Eventually, Ketchum found himself working in a plastic molding plant, Molded Container, in Southeast Portland, where now lives an Orwellian cluster of mysteriously quiet townhomes.

Ketchum had one week off a year until the plastic factory shut.

“I worked mindlessly, he says. “It was nothing spiritually fulfilling.”

He shifts his focus from the window to me, finally, and beams at me like a grown boy elated that someone is still listening.

He says the corporation moved to a more “business-friendly community” somewhere in the Midwest. (Online records show the corporation—founded here in 1957—is still located in Sellwood.)

“I think the problem is that Portland discourages business from coming in,” Ketchum says. “There’s a lot of environmental concern, you might say.”

Or, he suggests, it’s got to be the “right kind” of business.

“It puts people out of work,” he says, “but on the other side, whatever they put in, puts other people to work.”

Though he identifies as a “deeply-rooted Christian,” I wonder if Ketchum’s quasi-Buddhist perspective has kept him afloat all these years, still able to smile despite living in only a ‘sleeping room’—a situation he resists describing in detail but I sense is not particularly safe or comfortable for him.

In ages-old tradition, the young man Ketchum ventured north to work on a pollock processor vessel out of Dutch Harbor, Alaska, called the Ocean Rover.

I tell him that every summer, I commercial fish in Bristol Bay, northeast of Dutch.

Kevin’s face brightens. We reach out for a high-five, and instead our hands clasp. For a long, quiet moment, we exchange waves of empathy, even brotherhood.

I’m don’t think I’m projecting this time: we’ve both been soaked by the mad ocean, pushed to our physiological and mental edges by interminable days and nights of grueling work through high seas and big storms.

Some people spend the rest of their lives trying to get back to that edge. Some never leave; others never escape.

I feel oddly connected to this man, to his story. Suddenly, it is our story.

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I tell him how, at the beginning of the recession, I lived in my car, near penniless, with my girlfriend and dog, for months on end; that the sunroof broke and the rain poured in while we slept; that the police tapped too often on our windows as we reclined in sleeping bags, reading ourselves to sleep by headlamp.

“Yeah,” he says, “you have to find three or four places to alternate, so you don’t raise any eyebrows.”

For me, I wondered, where was this kind of support back then?

The community of people who just get it, whatever it is—whether commercial fishing, homelessness, or drug addiction—supports the survival of the individual. I never had that—in fact, out of judgment, I had refused even to communicate with other homeless people.

For me, the vast hopelessness set in quick—the kind that, fermented and concrete, leads to chronic homelessness. Young and arrogant, I refused to apply for social assistance and unemployment, figuring I had to pull myself—and girlfriend and dog—up by my bootstraps. That’s what the free market said I was supposed to do, right?

What’s your relationship to drugs?

Ketchum’s reply rolls off his tongue, an unpoetic recitation: “I haven’t smoked marijuana in twenty years. Alcohol in twenty-five. Wish I could say that about tobacco.”

This time, I choose compassion and understanding over judgment and criticism.

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Where do you see yourself, and Portland, five years from now?

I’m really discouraged about all this housing they’re building. A lot of people need housing. But that’s not happening. People are moving here, and people on the streets are going to keep living on the streets.”

This paradoxical reply seems to me to make perfect sense: developers will continue building housing, but those who really need it aren’t going to get in, except perhaps in the future affordable condos of what was once St. Francis Park.

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As much as I now operate in a world of “paradigm shifts,” “elevated consciousness,” and hopes of Bernie Sanders taking office, it’s humbling to note that there are still millions whose base needs are not being met.

As for Ketchum, he says, he’ll be glad to be “puttin’ around,” doing what he’s doing.

“I discovered that I enjoy sales,” he says. “So maybe if the right sales position comes along…right now, the newspaper works for me. I get to meet people, and maybe something will come from that.”

“I keep saying that I want to leave Portland,” he says, “but I grew up here. I’ve had my good times here and my bad times here. I just know where everything’s at.”