Toni Greaves

Michelle Black, AIA, is a senior associate at Carleton Hart Architecture in Portland who is well-versed in both affordable housing and historic preservation. One of her recent projects highlights the crossover between those areas: the Buck-Prager Building, a 1918 structure that was formerly a maternity hospital and is being redeveloped as affordable housing. Like many cities, Portland is in the middle of a housing crisis, and expertise like Black’s is a necessary part of the solution.

Since its foundation almost 25 years ago, Carleton Hart Architecture has been immersed in the field of affordable housing, working closely with nonprofit developer clients that serve people and communities in the area. One of those clients, Northwest Housing Alternatives, brought [the Buck-Prager] project to us, knowing we have experience with affordable housing, historic buildings, and complicated project structures; this one touched all three. The site, located in Portland’s Northwest District, is a high-opportunity area within walking distance of public transit, shops, healthcare, and the social services located downtown. It offers everything you’d hope for in an urban neighborhood, which means it’s exactly the kind of area that low-income citizens stand to gain the most from but usually cannot afford to live in.

I’ve been lucky to work with great affordable housing clients who are sensitive to both their residents’ needs and to the neighborhoods that they’re building in. These are clients that have long-term relationships with specific areas; they care about adding to the community. I think affordable housing tends to be more sensitive to its surroundings than market-rate development.

I met a memorable housing advocate at a conference last year, a priest who had gotten into housing through his church’s mission. He spoke about his own work and described how people want a magic bullet for the housing crisis, but the solution is going to be more like a recipe. We will have to deploy multiple techniques for each unique situation: from permanent supportive housing to temporary family shelters, zoning incentives to bond dollars, workforce training to healthcare services, and beyond.

I see rehabilitation and reuse of existing building stock as an important part of that recipe. There is intrinsic value in existing structures, both financially and architecturally. That being said, older buildings—specifically historic buildings—often require extensive upgrades to meet current codes. There is a point where what you’re gaining is outweighed by what you have to overcome. It’s not a magic bullet, but it can be an important part of any affordable housing strategy. —As told to Steve Cimino