(THE OUTLOOK ONLINE) — In the parking lot of the Barberry Village apartment complex, Thai women in vibrant colored skirts stand on their front porches watching African, Asian and Middle Eastern school-aged boys and girls bounce around a beat-up soccer ball with their bare feet.
Above the sound of the passing MAX train, Arabic, English, Swahili and Karen mix into an unintelligible buzz as the children coordinate soccer plays and keep track of the game’s score.
Cars driven by Hispanic men and women returning home from work pass through as the children polarize to the lot’s curbs.
It’s a calm afternoon at the 180-unit complex off 188th Avenue and Burnside Road, and for many of the resident families, these apartments are a safe haven, not only from the crime-riddled Rockwood neighborhood, but from the terror of their home countries plagued with political, ethnic and religious conflict.
But Barberry Village hasn’t always been so peaceful.
A complex transformation
In 2009, Barberry Village was one of the highest volume crime call-in locations in Gresham, with 409 calls for service, according to the Gresham Police Department.
“Barberry was one of the worst complexes I had ever been around,” said Detective Jim Leake, of the Gresham Police special enforcement team. “That was a complex where we had been ordered no less than three cars to go in on a call.”
Leake described residents jumping from second-story windows onto police cars during traffic stops, and a double-homicide on New Year’s Eve 2009 that drew statewide attention. Transients coming off the MAX train would inject heroin in the laundry rooms, and residents described a constant fear of robbery and assault.
In 2010, C&R Real Estate Services took over Barberry Village and contracted a new manager, Dennis Hanna, to clean up the complex.
Hanna’s credentials seemed a perfect fit for Barberry Village. He comes from a Syrian family that moved to the United States and made their living managing apartments in East County.
But Barberry Village is no ordinary complex.
“When I got here, we had a lot of issues, 24 vacancies and a lot of crime,” Hanna said.
To fill the empty apartments, Hanna tried the traditional route and interviewed candidates from Craigslist. But little did he know, the new tenants were just as irresponsible.
“All new people coming in were all bad,” Hanna said. “Pimps would find girls that could pass a background check, then they would move into the apartment and then the pimps would take over and then it would be total chaos. So I was actually adding to the problem when they moved in here, not realizing what was going on.”
Hanna realized he needed a new approach and called a local nonprofit organization, Sponsors Organized to Assist Refugees (SOAR), to discuss a potential partnership. The case managers there approved of Barberry Village, and the complex welcomed its first set of Cuban families a few days later.
Meanwhile, Hanna returned to work getting rid of problem tenants.
“We were evicting people right and left. It was horrifying,” Hanna said. “Many people came in here and threatened my life.”
All the while, refugee and immigrant families from all over the world began to arrive at Barberry Village.
Hanna found that the refugee families typically paid their rent on time and didn’t engage in criminal activity. He began calling other resettlement organizations like Catholic Charities, Lutheran Family Services and Immigrant Refugee and Community Organization (IRCO) that also started bringing refugees from war-torn countries like Somalia, Thailand, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burma, Iraq and Sudan to Barberry Village.
“We like to place clients at Barberry Village because we understand their staff has an idea of where their clients are coming from, not only geography-wise but who the clients are,” said Stephen Obold-Eshleman, a case manager at SOAR.
Dennis recognized how invaluable refugees are to the overall welfare of Barberry Village, and his strategy is paying off.
Gresham police said they had only 115 calls last year from Barberry Village, a 72 percent decrease since 2009.
“Once Dennis took over and worked in conjunction with us, he has completely cleaned that place up,” Leake said. “I don’t know many apartment managers who would walk up to a pimp or drug dealer and tell them to get off the property.”
Hanna sees the complex and neighborhood improving little by little, which he said makes the hard work worth it.
“Now, to see people coming out of their apartments, to see them start flowering up their yards, to see them with their kids on the property, that is impactful to me,” Hanna said.
Because of Barberry Village’s success, Hanna is now referring refugees to another apartment complex he manages, Lincoln Court on Southeast 122nd Avenue. He also is mentoring other apartment managers on how to incorporate refugee families into their complexes at Carrington Square on Southeast 182nd Avenue and Parker Place on Southeast 162nd Avenue.
Hanna said Barberry Village will always accept off-the-street applications from local residents, but offering low-income housing for refugee families has proven to be a successful business model.
“I’m here because I love my job, I’m doing right and I feel like I’m accomplishing something,” Hanna said. “But I have to be the good cop and the bad cop. I have to be more understanding than everybody else, but I also have to make sure bad things don’t happen ever again.”
A changing landscape
With the arrival of new residents, the Rockwood neighborhood is changing alongside Barberry Village.
After the U.S. Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act was signed in 1975, Oregon received thousands of immigrants, the majority from Southeast Asia and the former Soviet Union, and has been welcoming an average of 1,630 refugees a year ever since.
In terms of top metropolitan areas for refugee resettlement, Portland ranked No. 12 between 1983 and 2004, according to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, and is consequently shifting away from what the Atlantic Monthly once called the “last Caucasian bastion in the United States.”
To accommodate the incoming families, many organizations have started resettling refugees out toward Gresham, where housing costs are lower.
“East County is primarily where we can find affordable housing,” Eshleman said. “There aren’t a whole lot of options on where to place newly arrived refugees on a fixed income.”
Class C apartment complexes, like Barberry Village, offer low-cost apartments: one bedroom for $620, two bedrooms for $700 and three bedrooms for $860. Because these prices often are much lower than rents closer to downtown Portland, East County’s demographics are diversifying with refugees, immigrants and minorities.
According to 2010 U.S. Census data, in the last 10 years the foreign-born population in Gresham grew from 13.1 percent to 17.2 percent.
Hanna attributes the improved community at Barberry Village to those foreign-born refugees. North Portland may have relied on young hipsters to bolster that neighborhood, but Hanna said he hopes refugee families have a similar effect in East Multnomah County.
“We’re changing the neighborhood slowly but surely,” Hanna said. “Now, instead of seeing people at the MAX that are drugging and prostituting, people are seeing refugee families catching the MAX to get to their appointments.”
Residents and local businesses are reportedly happy with the change in population.
In a 2007 survey conducted by researchers, residents rated themselves an average of 7.1 out of 10 on their openness and acceptance of new residents.
Somehow, in the heart of Gresham, which had the highest crime rate in the state in 2009, Barberry Village is starting to bring refugees and the surrounding community exactly what is needed: a safe place to call home.
“We’re making this neighborhood a wonderful neighborhood, a family oriented neighborhood,” said Hanna. “It’s a place where people want to go.”