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Historic Portland School Transformed Into Affordable Housing

An abandoned school building in Portland, Michigan has been turned into affordable housing for families and singles. The grand opening took place last week and WKAR’s Katie Cook was there.

Diane Schafer is really excited about her new apartment. She is one of the first tenants of Portland School Apartments- an old school-turned-apartment building consisting of 29 new one, two, and three-bedroom units.


Diane Schafer standing in front of her front door.
Credit Katie Cook / WKAR-MSU
Diane Schafer is one of the first tenants to move into Portland School Apartments.

“This is my bathroom, it’s huge, you get your own washer and dryer, they’re huge. And the tub and shower... you could put a bed in here if you want,” says Schafer, as she gives a tour of her new place.

She gestures to the living room windows.

“This is where all the sunshine comes in here. I’m gonna get succulents to put on my window sill.”


The apartments are open-concept with contemporary finishes and energy saving appliances. They have dishwashers and washers and dryers. And many units feature high ceilings. A new playground was installed outside for families to use.

Built in 1919, the Portland School building served as a school until 1996, when it was temporarily used for housing, and then sat vacant and decaying for many years.


Diane Schafer's Living Room.
Credit Katie Cook / WKAR-MSU
Diane Schafer's Living Room.

It’s a building full of memories for the residents of Portland. The audience at the grand opening chuckled along with Sandy Pearson as she shared stories of going to school there.

“It’s literally these steps out this door that the very first boy and I wanted to share a kiss, and he was going to invite me to the dance that would be here that evening. And I had to announce to him that I had the chicken pox. And he immediately broke up with me, and I was devastated.”

The building faced demolition, but Woda Cooper Companies, out of Ohio, saw it as an opportunity for creating modern affordable housing. The company has built 325 affordable communities in the past 28 years. Managing Director David Cooper Jr. says this project was especially rewarding to finish, because, being a historical building, it presented some challenges along the way.

“One of the things that happens with a building like this is, in today’s world you don’t have a lot of craftsmen who do things like plaster walls. So we had to find people to repair plaster. Each of the windows had to be specially made for the building and approved by the state historic commission. All the millwork inside had to be specially made and the hardware specially made to match historic standards, so all those things present challenges.”


Picture of Portland School.
Credit Katie Cook / WKAR-MSU
The Portland School building was constructed in 1919, after a fire burned down the former school in 1918.

Portland School Apartments was a $7.42 million dollar development. It was made possible with historic credits from the National Park Service, and low income housing tax credits allocated by Michigan State Housing Development Authority, or MSHDA.


Earl Poleski is MSHDA’s executive director. He says he is excited to be involved with changing the perception of affordable and low-income housing.

“This is the model of affordable housing now in America, beautifully done, a good neighbor,” Poleski says.“Regrettably, many people have unfortunate ideas for what affordable housing looks like: it’s not attractive, it’s unsafe. That is not the case anymore. It’s beautifully attractive, just like this. And a very pleasant, safe place to live.”

The apartments are intended for seniors and working singles or families that earn up to 60% area median income, or AMI. The AMI in Portland is currently $60,800.


Portland Mayor Jim Barnes says the apartments meet a need the city has for affordable housing, and he describes the process of transforming the abandoned school as “miraculous.”

“It’s been a wonderful transition from what we were so afraid of being an eyesore and something that was reducing property values, to something that is now a centerpiece for this part of town. It’s really gonna benefit not only the people that live around the building and in the building, but the entire city as well.”

Portland School Apartments are still accepting applications. To find out more, visit their website here.


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