Community Impact Leader: nicholas papaefthimiou

Community Impact Leader: An Interview with Nicholas Papaefthimiou

This is the second post in our new series called Community Impact Leaders. These are people in the community who are creating change for the better, rather than just their pocketbooks. I hope you enjoy meeting these leaders and feel inspired by their work. If you know of someone you feel would make a great Community Impact Leader, please reach out to me. 

Meet Nicholas Papaefthimiou

 

Community Impact Leader: nicholas papaefthimiou

Nicholas Papaefthimiou is a trained engineer, licensed architect, professor at Portland State University, and professional design/build contractor with more than 15 years professional experience in firms across the Unites States as well as Europe.  He is passionate and focused on the development of financially, socially, and environmentally sustainable models of infill housing models to address Portland’s housing crisis.

What is Your Project?

I design and develop sustainable, affordable housing.  I am especially interested in what’s called “missing middle” housing: alternative housing types that blend into single-family neighborhoods and increase density and diversity while protecting against out-of-scale new development.  We’ve found it’s possible to include a lot of “premium” options – such as adding solar panels and high-efficiency heat pumps, and eliminating toxic materials – and still set rents at or below the Portland Housing Bureau’s Affordable Housing standards.  We also maintain an equity stake in most of our projects, and work with various agencies in town to rent units to people transitioning out of homelessness, veterans, and other vulnerable populations.

Why Did You Start This Endeavor?

It is estimated that an average of 10,000 people a year will come to Portland over the next 20 years, and they will need affordable, quality housing.  At the same time, we’re facing serious challenges with our existing population in terms of gentrification, housing equity, tenants rights and home prices.  There is an urgent need to find housing solutions that protect our livability and keep costs as low as possible.

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An Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) in Portland, OR

Why Are You Passionate About Your Work?

I grew up wanting to be an architect, and did my Master’s thesis work on how to utilize forgotten urban spaces here in Portland to uplift vulnerable populations.  I am passionate about the power of architecture to make a difference in people’s lives.  I also figured out pretty early in my education that the formal side of architecture didn’t interest me as much as the human one, and the building didn’t interest me as much as the process and the relationships.  When someone wants to learn about a building, they go on a website or open a magazine and look at a bunch of pretty pictures.  I think that’s a huge disservice to what architects can do to address the problems of the world.  We need to de-emphasize the photographs and elevate the conversations surrounding process and relationships.  The real potential of each project is as an opportunity to engage someone’s life and make a lasting impact.

For example, I was talking to a tenant one day when I learned they were paying very high electricity bills.  It didn’t take long to figure out most of the problem was that the family had never lived in a house before – things like opening your windows at night to flush the house with cold air were just not part of their experience.  In addition to giving them some tips, I connected them with a home energy audit and am installing some submeters that will allow them to track the power usage of different circuits in their home (at no cost to them).  They’ll make smarter energy decisions and save more money, and the children will grow up to be more sophisticated consumers of housing and utilities.  That’s going to have a greater ripple effect in the world than the house alone.

When you see each project as an opportunity to have that kind of effect on the world, it’s impossible not to see how buildings impact “non-architectural” things like equity, economic revitalization, and even identity.  On our website we share the whole story of each project – the process, the budget, our collaborators – because you can’t call pretty architecture “good” architecture until you understand how it contributes to its social context.  Were local investment funds and businesses used?  Are the materials and cost structures sustainable?  That kind of thing.

How Do You Help Everyday People on Main Street?

The people that work on Main Street or the people that sleep on Main Street?

I believe there is a way to develop affordable housing that is of benefit to everyone. What is really exciting to me about using the Missing Middle as a vehicle for affordable housing is all the secondary and tertiary social benefits that are returned to middle-class neighborhoods.  We can avoid the inherent problems with concentrating affordable housing at the downtown core or the urban edge, and simultaneously revitalize our existing buildings, protect the character of our streets, and promote diversity and greater housing choices within existing, vibrant communities.

 

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An ADU as part of a larger urban space in Portland, OR.

Why Should Others Care?

A society should be judged according to the way it treats its most vulnerable citizens.

This quote has been attributed to everyone from Samuel Johnson to Mahatma Gandhi.

I believe quality affordable housing is one pillar of a just society.  I also recognize that the cost and quality of housing is of concern to everyone, and there is a lot of bad stuff going up because developers know people will buy it.  If we can help demonstrate that healthy materials, quality construction and good design don’t have to cost a lot of extra money, even in one small segment of the market, then I think people will take notice and expectations will slowly begin to shift.

What Motivates You?

I believe our work promotes greater livability, diversity, and equity for all Portlanders.  There’s also a growing body of research showing that Housing really is a form of Health Care, and making responsible choices in home construction (let alone getting someone in a home in the first place) has profound and measurable impacts on health outcomes.  Outside of politics I’m not sure there’s as direct a way to address a society’s needs as construction… in fact, I would say design and construction are a form of politics.

Call to Action

Like I said above, I see what I do as essentially a political enterprise, so I’ll answer this as I would a political call to action: find your passion and get involved!  Portland has a wealth of good organizations working not just in affordable housing but in tenants rights, homeless advocacy, etc.  If people are specifically interested in my model and want to learn more, they can visit my website.  I’m very committed to running this as an open-source business; I list all the costs, partners and investors for each project.  My dearest hope is that everyone who can do what I do, does!

Lastly, there is a real need for investors.  Banks have been historically reluctant to lend on affordable housing and especially ADU’s, and it is really hard for homeowners in Portland to get lending to build their own projects.  If you’re an investor interested in becoming part of this, please visit my website.  I am very up front about the construction financing piece and investors can see the kinds of rates and returns I’ve seen in the past.  I, and I think most homeowners, would much prefer to work with a local investor, like Rooted Investing, who will reinvest their profits in local businesses then sending off our payments to Wall Street. Don’t let the what-ifs prevent you from learning more.  Community-based development doesn’t work without community-based investment!

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