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Founder and Executive Director Jamal Dar (left) translates for Amran Goni as she gives a speech in Somali thanking Oregon state legislatures and their constituents for coming out to visit AYCO during a Bike Town Hall on Sept. 18 (photo credit: Danny Peterson).
Saundra Sorenson
Published: 28 October 2021

A nonprofit organization that serves thousands of immigrants will have to move its Montavilla neighborhood headquarters to make way for an affordable housing development on the city-owned site. While the group supports such a development, its leaders are expressing frustration that their proposal was passed over.

The African Youth & Community Organization (AYCO) holds a two-year lease at 432 NE 74th Ave, formerly the site of Trinity Broadcasting.

AYCO executive director Jamal Dar emphasized that the sting of displacement is especially hard on an organization that serves a large population of African refugees.

“These community members, they need help, they need to stabilize their families, and look for a place to call home,” Dar told The Skanner.

“In our community, there’s this kind of moving location to location, from civil war to refugee camp to the U.S. to look for housing, to look for education.”

AYCO’s current headquarters are located in the center of “13 small businesses between 122nd all the way to 60th and Glisan,” Dar said. “There’s about three mosques, two churches, where our community worship. And you wonder, why (is the city) displacing?

"We have this richness of community.”

Metro has owned the 1.65-acre plot since last year.

Competing Proposal's

The Portland Housing Bureau (PHB) reported Metro received five development proposals through its bond opportunity solicitation for the site last spring. Last week, PHB announced it had selected a proposal submitted by Catholic Charities, the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IIRCO), and the private New York-based real estate firm Related Northwest. The development will have a total of 137 units, ranging from studios to four-bedroom apartments, housed in two buildings. Of those, 96 will be classified as family housing.

One building will be served by Catholic Charities and designated permanent supportive housing intended for seniors, those who are homeless, those experiencing domestic violence, and members of the BIPOC community. The family housing is to be overseen by IIRCO, and will give priority to BIPOC, immigrant, refugee and intergenerational households, according to the proposal.

The proposal includes an onsite preschool, small business classes through Mercy Corps NW, and "incubator" retail spaces, as well as a cafe, to foster new business.

ayco medMuslim community members provide drive-thru meals at AYCO's Montavilla headquarters during Ramadan. (Photo courtesy AYCO)
But Dar argued the proposal AYCO submitted with REACH Community Development, sustainable design firm SERA Architects, Black-owned Colas Construction, Community Vision, and El Programa Hispano Católico actually provided three more affordable housing units, and would have given AYCO a permanent headquarters in an area where a large immigrant population had come to rely on its services.

AYCO provides wraparound services that begin with student support, Dar explained. In the past year, the organization has served more than 1,800 households with rental assistance, has aided in 582 unemployment cases, and has accessed support funding and provided food delivery and other services for 240 Covid-related home isolations.

“There are 4,400 students who are served virtually and in the office, including leadership training, mentorship, environmental training,” Dar said. “Most of these kids are supporting their families and delivering food, they’re educating their parents who may not speak the language about COVID. These kids are volunteering as well, even though they’re learning themselves.

"Over 250 community members have been vaccinated in our parking lot.”

Differing Visions

Both AYCO and the selected proposals included community centers. In the AYCO proposal, El Programa Hispano Católico would have served alongside the organization as a culturally specific resident services provider, with Community Vision the development's disability partner.

Dar emphasized that his nonprofit has worked successfully with both Catholic Charities and IIRCO in the past.

“We want to know why the other proposal was chosen, even though we have more legitimate reasons for building the Dream Center, we’re still building more units of housing -- what was the priority for the city? What drove the decision?”

According to Portland Housing Bureau, AYCO's proposal was ranked third out of five submissions in a two-step review process that included a Technical and Financial Feasibility Review Committee and a Community Review Committee.

“AYCO has been an invaluable partner to the City and PHB in distributing rent assistance throughout the pandemic—particularly in our efforts to reach and engage with immigrant communities, people of color, and households with limited English proficiency,” PHB public information manager Martha Coolidge told The Skanner in an email. “We look forward to ways we may collaborate with AYCO in the future.”

Dar considers AYCO’s unsuccessful bid, and upcoming displacement, a possible byproduct of cultural differences.

“In the U.S., there’s a lot of individualism, but our community is community-based,” he said, describing the intergenerational nature of most Somali households. “If the kid is messing up, all the neighbors are going to come and talk to the kid, like ‘You’re dropping the ball.’”

In the meantime, Dar hopes to get a clearer explanation of why AYCO’s proposal was not approved.

“This is a community that is extremely difficult to reach out to -- the immigrant, the refugee population, the African and Black population who has been effected and hit the most when it comes to COVID, when it comes to health issues, when it comes to isolation, when it comes to displacement -- they have zero voice,” Dar said.

“The city of Portland speaks the language of displacement.

"They speak the language of setting up a very negative model when it comes to serving that very underserved population.”

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