In late July, we sat down with Martha McLennan to reflect on her 16 years of leadership at Northwest Housing Alternatives (NHA). The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Can you remember back to when you first began at NHA? What was it like? What were you most excited about?
I worked for the City of Portland for a long time before [coming to NHA], and I was definitely excited to get to the nonprofit sector. To be a notch closer to the client and to be actually in the organization that was doing the work was pretty exciting to me.
It was a pretty small organization at that point, we had a total of 17 employees but three of them were with the community land trust, so really only 14 were with NHA. [Now, NHA employs 36 people.] Most managers didn’t have a team, or they had one other person helping. Resident Services didn’t exist then. We only had the shelter and a couple of transitional units at that point. The Homeless Intervention Services team was pretty tiny – we served maybe 30-40 households a year. Now we serve 200.
How has the housing environment changed since you first began at NHA?
Now there is a lot of attention on [the housing crisis]. But when I began, Northeast Portland had 3,000 vacant and available homes, so affordability wasn’t always the hot topic. Housing quality was a concern. Creating opportunity through housing has always existed, but it’s really ramped up over the time that I’ve been here. The level of desperation and the broader income level of folks that are hit with it has really changed over these years.
I look back at some of the signs that it was coming, and wish that the energy and focus had shown up a little earlier because I think we could have made better progress against it. Housing prices have gone up so much and incomes haven’t, so increasingly, we’re pricing people out of housing. Now we’re starting to see the money follow, so it’s kind of an exciting time because we may have some momentum against this issue.
What are you most proud of? What’s your biggest accomplishment?
Certainly the growth [of the organization] is a piece of it. We had 1100 units when I got here, and then lost almost 200 of them, and now we’re closing in on 2,000 [units of affordable housing]. Just that growth is really exciting.
I’m also proud of professionalizing the organization. We used to be a scrappy organization, and you know, that’s energizing but it’s also a little chaotic. We’ve done a lot to bring the organization along with systems and structures to really be well managed. So I feel proud about that.
And then just the stories of the people we serve – that there are so many individual stories of people who have a place to call home and what that means to them and what that allows to happen in their life – I love that.
The other thing that I think is part of the magic of what makes this place work is the people who work here. We’ve been really lucky in terms of bringing a group of really talented people together and then having lots of them stay a long time. And the thing that I think is the most important piece of that is an attachment to mission. People are here because they believe in the work that we do, and that makes it fun, and it makes the challenges worthwhile, and it makes the accomplishments really sweet. And I think people experience that and they want to stay. I feel really good about helping to create that environment where people want to stay, want to do more, and want to work hard.
Why was the social service part of NHA important to you?
We were actually probably a little slow to add resident services compared to some of our peers, and that dates back to where we were in the affordability crisis. As times have gone on, the people we’re serving are lower and lower income and the need for services was more clear. I don’t think our median income of our households has changed by more than $1000 in the time I’ve been here, so you can see that we were serving higher AMI [area median income] households and increasingly it’s lower and lower.
The other piece of it is the [increased] pressure on the social service system. Our resident service coordinators really act as navigators to help people overcome the confusion or the barriers that they are having just trying to get the services they need.
What is the biggest challenge we face now in the affordable housing industry?
We’ve got these resources—what we’ve got to do is get them out quickly to do as much as we can. Cost increases are just kicking us. Is that grumpiness about cost increases going to reduce the quality of the housing that we’ve developed? Are we going to build things that aren’t as durable or that risk overcrowding or not meeting peoples’ needs in some way? That’s something that we need to be cautious about.
A lot of the housing we need right now is large family housing. Where people used to find a duplex or single family home that had three bedroom or four bedroom capacity, they can’t find that anymore. And the market doesn’t build 3 and 4 bedroom stuff—it’s harder to finance it. So what are we going to do?
One of the things I love about this industry is it’s always a puzzle—blending new financing sources, building in new communities. So as we see an aging population and singles – people in their young adult years – how many multi-family buildings do we need, and what’s the mix that’s going to work for people aging, for people downsizing, for families growing up?
And how do we have an eye on the long term because we’re not going to stop needing this housing in 15 years or 20 years or even 30 years. So how do we build good quality stock that meets those needs for the long term rather than rushing to less expensive solutions but that aren’t durable? We could build little tiny units but then where are the families going to go? So one of the lessons from my years here is you think, “Thirty years of affordability, that’s a long time!” But no, it’s not. That 30 years comes due. Having the eye to the long term is really important.
It feels like this stress between, there’s somebody on the streets now – get them into something, anything. And the underlying structural problem is that their income capacity may be limited for a long time or permanently and so they’re not just going to need this for a month or two years or ten years. So what’s this going to look like?
What lessons have you learned that you would like to share with others working in this field?
In terms of the housing, it’s a puzzle and that means that it’s fun because you’re always solving the puzzle in a different way. Every project is different, and every situation is different and so that keeps it fresh and interesting.
I’m really curious about a modern, purpose-built SRO be like. Who would it be for? How would it be set up? There are single populations, either newly in the workforce or folks with disabilities where a small unit with really nice amenities and really nice layout would be a good housing solution. It would be an interesting thing to experiment with.
I’m also curious about doing more in rural areas. The project now where we’re working in Hermiston is really exciting in terms of getting something done in rural areas that are desperately hard to serve and desperately in need of housing, so that’s another exciting innovation.
What’s next for you? What are your plans for retirement?
I’ve been working a long time, and I’m ready to play, so I’m excited about traveling and gardening and getting exercise and doing things that are creative. I don’t know what shape that will take exactly. It’s another puzzle!