Nancy Hiss Helps Community with Affordable Housing

Nancy Hiss, Marylhurst University, Accessible Dwelling Unit

Marylhurst interior design professor Nancy Hiss is providing affordable housing to a Portland family in the accessible dwelling unit her parents once occupied.

When Michelle Labra read the notice that said her rent was increasing from $620 a month to more than $1,300, her first thought was for her kids. There was no way they could afford the rent hike.

“My son, he said, ‘I really don’t want to leave this area,’” Labra told OPB in an interview conducted in Spanish.

“‘My friends are here, my school is here.’ I realized it was destabilizing to him to move out of this area.”

Labra’s son, Jose, is 8. Her daughter, Daphne, is 5. They’ve lived in this northeast Portland neighborhood, Cully, their whole lives.

They got help from a local community development organization called Living Cully. The group is trying to help low-income families stay in the neighborhood even as it gentrifies.

Labra and her family got lucky. For about $900, they’re moving just a few blocks away.

Nancy Hiss, Marylhurst University, Accessible Dwelling Unit

Nancy Hiss and husband Daniel Berkman in the accessible dwelling unit they built. Photos by Amelia Templeton/OPB.

Architect Nancy Hiss is their new landlord — and their new neighbor. Labra’s family is moving into an accessory dwelling unit, or ADU, that Hiss built in her backyard a few years ago for her mother, who had Alzheimer’s disease, and her father, who had heart trouble.

After her parents passed, Hiss and her husband tried to rent the backyard unit to a refugee family. Hiss’ mother-in-law fled the Nazis to the U.S. as a child. The couple wanted to pay that forward.

But Hiss said they couldn’t find a refugee family to rent. So when they saw the notice that Living Cully was looking for units for more than a dozen families, they wrote back. A few days later, Labra and her family came to take a look.

“And they could have said, ‘Well, we’re in a desperate situation, we’ll take it.’ But they said, ‘It has really nice light, we like it. We like the birds.’ I was like, ‘OK.’ There’s just this gut connection.”

The ADU is small, about 800 square feet, but it doesn’t feel that way. It has two bedrooms and two bathrooms, and high ceilings with skylights that Labra likes.

“When we first came in and I saw this beautiful house, I was really amazed,” she said. “My kids loved it. We’ve never had a place that was new like this, and they were wanting to get their stuff together, and saying, ‘Mom, when can we move in?’”

She’s hoping it’s the last move her family makes for a long time.

This news item is an excerpt from a piece by Amelia Templeton that aired on OPB radio in May 2017. » Read the full article and hear the interview on

Nancy Hiss is adjunct faculty in the interior design program at Marylhurst University. 

2017-11-07T10:09:19+00:00 July 18th, 2017|Faculty, Interior Design|