05-24-2024  4:47 pm   •   PDX and SEA Weather
Andrea Bell in as new executive director of Oregon Housing and Community Services
Saundra Sorenson
Published: 07 June 2022

When Oregon Housing and Community Services executive director Andrea Bell stepped into her new role in March, it was after a quick ascent in the agency: She was hired as assistant director of homeless services in 2019, and became director of housing stabilization the following year.

Bell became interim director of the agency in February, when predecessor Margaret Salazar was appointed as regional administrator to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. While Bell was still serving as interim executive director, she obtained an additional $16 million in federal funding for Oregon’s emergency rental assistance program.

Bell holds a bachelor’s degree from California State University Northridge, and a master’s degree in public health from Arizona State University. She spoke with The Skanner about how her experience as an immigrant from the Dominican Republic shaped her dedication to accessible housing for everyone.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Why did you feel called to work in housing?

I moved to the states when I was a young girl, and I was raised by a single mother and that was one of my first inspirations – her service to community. My grandmother is an educator and my grandfather is a farmer. For my family, as soon as you can walk, you’re helping. I had been helping my grandfather on the farm for a really long time as he grew watermelons and cantaloupe and all of that. Interestingly enough, one of the earliest conversations that I can remember with the people he worked with was really their dream around housing. As a young kid, hearing people that worked really hard, barely got by, and held onto what felt like an abundant amount of optimism about opportunity and what they considered the American dream. For my grandfather, that dream of owning a home didn’t happen until much later.

Later in life when I was a service provider, what I found during that time was that story was really the story of so many people. People that were of service to their community, people that were living in the margins, and folks that would be working all day and after five o’clock would be actively working in serving their community either through activism or through elected leadership and through all of these different spaces.

There is something to be said about bearing witness and being part of that collective story. I think as somebody who is a product of struggle, a product of a working class family, I’m also a product of what’s possible. For me, I think those seeds were planted before I was even here.

affordable housing portland brian j lowe full
In March 2022, Oregon received $16 million in additional federal emergency rental assistance funding after Governor Kate Brown, and OHCS’s then Acting Executive Director Andrea Bell wrote letters to the U.S. Treasury making the case for Oregon's eligiblity. Because the state is a top performing state in helping a record number of low-income households stay safely housed during the pandemic, the state was technically eligible to receive reallocated funds. (Photo/Brian J. Lowe)

While I feel so much optimism and resolve and excitement for serving in this way, it’s also the prism by which I live my life: A belief that housing is something that we should all have access to. Where you live and what you have access to is also telling about longevity and health in a lot of ways.

I’ve run outreach programs. I’ve worked directly in shelters.

What that means for me is there are so many individuals, so many names, so many experiences that carry with me in this work.

So when we engage in policy, when we engage in programs, I cannot do that without thinking about all of those people where the system has let them down. Or in some cases where the system has been its best self and has been optimally effective and demonstrates the best of ourselves when we’re working holistically to improve the quality of lives.

You previously served as OHCS’s director of housing stabilization, which addressed everything from homelessness to weatherization assistance. 

It’s interesting because it’s the community services arm of our agency, which makes us a pretty uniquely positioned housing finance agency to have really both the supply and investment on infrastructure and home ownership, then to also have this broad array of services on energy and climate and pathways to home ownership and eviction prevention.

Just for context, OHCS serves as the state’s housing finance agency, so we really work across the full continuum to really both create sustainable and equitable opportunities for access to affordable housing and home ownership services. But one of the other ways we are of service to the people of Oregon is really around energy, weatherization and climate investments.

Specific to weatherization, what we found is a lot of communities and people have experienced over time, one, often we see that Black, Indigenous and people of color are overrepresented in being rent burdened. We also find that to be true on the energy services side – they’re paying higher amounts for energy costs associated with where they live.

There’s been a lot more conversation than I can ever remember around climate justice, and I think part of what this work does for us as a state agency, as a government agency that exists to serve the people of Oregon, it does bring us closer in alignment to our values. Candidly, it’s not enough for us to posture as an agency that cares about and has words of solidarity and commitment to serving Black, Indigenous and people of color – that has to come through in actual investments, and in actual investments to community.

What is your vision for the organization?

If I was in this position a couple of years ago prior to COVID-19, my answer may have been slightly different, but really recognizing the harm, trauma that so many people have experienced, part of our role has to be really serving as a beacon of hope.

I’m very interested in all of the different ways that we are utilizing space, so even when we think about affordable housing, I think about all the different human healing aspects that can happen in those spaces, and bringing green spaces in, bringing more texture. Yes, it’s meant to create affordable housing options and we can think and do beyond that.

How do we think about quality of life?

How do we think about community-building? We’ve been talking about housing as health for decades, and seeing the manifestations of that type of integration from a human perspective is inspiring.  

What are the agency’s priorities? 

Within our statewide housing plan, which is our five-year strategic plan, one of the goals is to create 25,000 units of affordable housing, and we’ve nearly created about 19,000.

We also set a very ambitious goal for ourselves around creating permanent supportive housing, which is a housing model that really combines affordable housing, long-term rent assistance and service-enriched housing, specifically to serve our neighbors experiencing homelessness and chronic homelessness.

And so when we think about our investments – we just received over $400 million in housing investments, we pushed out more than $352 million in emergency resources – what that indicates to us as we’ve learned more about the need is that we will need to continue to be relentless in producing affordable housing of all shapes and sizes across the state, inclusive of our Metro region and into our rural communities.

We’ll need to continue to think about long-term strategies for affordability through rent assistance, and as part of that, continuing to focus on preservation. We have a number of units across the state that will be losing their affordability, so we cannot let up in any arena of housing issues.

And I think for a state agency, what that means and what that emboldens for us is, we also have to think differently about how we make our policy decisions while supporting community-led and community-driven solutions. We have to take our cue from community and not be out of sync with that.

So going into the next budget cycle, we have a really audacious ask of how much funding we want to be able to request, and we have to meet that at the scale of need. 

How do you intend to do this work within a racial equity framework?

At OHCS right now we are investing a lot of time as an agency, as a collective within the agency, to really continue to push ourselves in terms of building our competency and consciousness about what it means to be an antiracist employer. What does it mean to be in solidarity in words and in action with communities of color and with our neighbors that have been marginalized and, quite frankly, for so many communities that continue to experience trauma? How do you heal when there’s continued trauma that happens?

I am a woman of color, and an immigrant, and I’ve been working in housing and homeless matters for a really long time, but my deepest competency by proxy of my own experience is not racial justice. It is something I have continued to learn and lean on.

In terms of the how, there has to be a willingness and acknowledgement of government impact.

Despite the best intent, government impact sometimes exacerbates or creates trauma for communities.

We’ve got to build from a place of honesty and from a place of truth with that.

Part of the journey that we are on as an agency is really trying to think about, how do we make a truly positive impact that represents what we are learning from community in terms of where we need to be and how we need to show up, and how do we live that on a day-to-day basis? That’s an audacious goal for a housing finance agency, but really that’s part of our existence. That is a non-negotiable factor.

In order for us to serve all people of Oregon, we have to wrestle with, what does it look like to power-share in an authentic way?

Recently Published by The Skanner News

  • Default
  • Title
  • Date
  • Random

The Skanner Foundation's 38th Annual MLK Breakfast