Finding innovative solutions for multi-faceted challenges is all part of a typical day’s work for Oscar Arana, MBA ’12, the community development director at Portland's Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA).
Since 2017, Arana has led NAYA’s initiative to provide affordable housing and economic development programs for Native Americans in the Portland region. In 2021, Housing Oregon recognized Arana as a Star Player in its annual leadership awards for his work on multi-unit developments in Portland’s Cully neighborhood.
A first-of-its-kind funding strategy is one of several reasons NAYA's affordable housing developments stand out.
“We really wanted to make sure that we could find a way to prioritize tribal applicants to the top of our waitlist, so we could give them a better opportunity to get into these units,” said Arana.
Establishing a tribal preference leasing policy while working within the bounds of the Fair Housing Act was a team effort. NAYA’s partners included the Native American Rehabilitation Association of the Northwest (NARA NW), Community Development Partners, and the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians.
To achieve their goal, the team came up with an unusual pairing: They combined funding from the Siletz Tribe’s Indian Housing Block Grant—a source typically used by tribal entities for rural housing activities on Indian reservations and Indian areas—with U.S. Housing and Urban Development’s low-income tax credits, which are used to build mainstream affordable housing in urban and rural settings.
Pathbreaking though it was, the blended approach isn't easy.
“There are good reasons this isn't typically done,” said Arana. “It’s tricky because the two sources have very different compliance requirements. I like to say the two sources don't play well with each other.”
Despite these challenges, NAYA and its partners are well on their way to achieving their goal. The first development—Nesika Illahee, which means “our place” in the Chinook Wawa language—was completed in January 2020 and is fully occupied. Mamook Tokatee—“make beautiful” in Chinook Wawa—was completed in February and residents are moving in.
At least twenty of Nesika Illahee’s units house tribal members. Mamook Tokatee’s 56 units will also dedicate at least 20 units for federally enrolled tribal members.
“The Native American community faces multiple barriers accessing affordable housing,” said Arana. “Our housing development projects can lift some of those barriers so we can have higher housing success rates for our clients.”
Providing housing is just the start. Both developments are designed to facilitate community. Nesika Illahee provides on-site services for tenants who are in recovery, while Mamook Tokatee includes studio and display space for Native American artists, along with technical advisors who can help facilitate the business side of art making.
Also under construction is a third development—Hayu Tilixam—which will provide permanent supportive housing for Native Americans and BIPOC community members. Like the other two developments, Hayu Tilixam will be located within easy reach of NAYA’s main campus, where residents will be able to take advantage of a range of services.
With each project, Arana’s role has continued to evolve.
“With the first one, Nesika Illahee, I was involved in every step of the way, making sure things were moving forward and troubleshooting challenges as they came up,” said Arana.
Since then, Arana has been able to hire staff, allowing him to spend more time on the strategic issues surrounding these development efforts.
“My role has been to help raise resources so we can make these projects happen, be a lead representative for our organization when partner decisions are being made, and to continue to be a voice for what's important for our clients,” said Arana.
As NAYA continues to develop forward-thinking ways to serve Portland’s Native American community, Arana is well prepared to tackle what comes next, thanks to combination of skills he gained from his time at the Oregon Executive MBA and his earlier undergraduate degree from the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication.
“The journalism degree and the MBA have helped me organize my way of thinking and my way of presenting information to either build a case for investment or provide solutions to complex issues,” said Arana.
Looking to the future, Arana continues to see busy, engaging times ahead. NAYA already has a fourth development planned and an early learning center. Arana is eager to explore other opportunities in the housing space, like building out the home-ownership side of NAYA’s continuum of services and even looking into providing shelter services.
“I really enjoy the complexity of this work. I’m constantly challenged in this role. There’s never a day where I say oh, I’m kind of bored, what should I do?” said Arana.
—Kit Alderdice, Lundquist College Communications