Case study: AfroVillage

A group of five people, including Portland State University students, sit at a table looking at plans for the AfroVillage project.
A case study on how housing advocates and Portland State University students are working to turn retired light rail cars into places for people experiencing houselessness to rest, heal and recover.

Project overview 

Portland is home to one of the country’s first light rail systems. But after nearly 35 years, the original cars are reaching their retirement age; 26 of Portland’s MAX light rail cars will be retired in the next several years.  

But thanks to the ingenuity of housing advocates and PSU students, the rail cars will become part of a broad effort to meet the essential needs of people experiencing homelessness, with a focus on racial disparities and inequities. By refurbishing the rail cars, they can be transformed into gathering spaces to provide community services, amenities, and partnerships and become the foundation of a new concept called AfroVillage.

A graphics illustration of the inside of a converted max train, with people sitting at tables and browsing produce displayed on shelving on the wall.

The problem  

In Multnomah County, African-Americans are disproportionately affected by the lack of affordable housing and access to critical services. While only 7% of the overall population, Black Portlanders comprise 16% of the city’s houseless population. In addition to housing insecurity, this group faces food insecurity and lack of access to basic needs, such as personal hygiene, clean laundry, and support services.  

AfroVillage offers a solution

The typical end-of-life scenario for a retired light rail car is scrapping for recycling of metal components and disposal of nonrecyclables and hazardous materials. The materials used to construct the light rail cars represent a significant amount of embodied emissions associated with extracting natural resources, transporting and manufacturing materials. Repurposing the rail cars preserves their embodied carbon, while avoiding the need for new building materials and their associated emissions.  

These cars have served Portlanders for more than 30 years. Adapting them for reuse as a way to support our most vulnerable communities – instead of scrapping them – is a win-win. The AfroVillage Homebase will provide basic services like showers, toilets, kitchens, and more for Portland's Black and Brown communities – especially women and people experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity – to rest, heal and recover.  

Providing shelter and services to Portland’s communities of color – while preserving part of our transportation heritage – these repurposed MAX cars could be a model for other cities as they retire their older light rail cars. 

How did this project come to be? 

LaQuida Landford, a Portland housing justice advocate, wanted to create a space where housed and unhoused people of color, particularly Black women, could receive services like food and shelter while being in community together. Inspired by homeless villages like Right 2 Dream Too, LaQuida started working with Portland State University’s Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative (HRAC), where she met designer Marta Petteni. 

The AfroVillage Homebase project was created by Landford and Petteni as part of the MAX Reuse Design Challenge, a 2020 competition organized by Portland State University’s Center for Public Interest Design and the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS). The project won the People’s Choice Award and has since developed partnerships with City RepairTriMet, and numerous Black-owned organizations. The project has since gained momentum, earning  funding from Metro and the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund.  

Bureau of Planning and Sustainability staff members Lora Lillard, Cassie Ballew, Shawn Wood, and Jung Choothian (formerly with BPS) helped organize the Design Challenge and continue to support the AfroVillage team with locating a site, permitting, and land use elements of the project. Shawn worked on light rail planning for Portland early in his career, so he is excited to support AfroVillage’s vision for the railcar’s “second life,” at the intersection of creative reuse and supporting vulnerable communities. 

What’s next 

The retired MAX light rail trains are expected to be available by mid- to late-2022. The AfroVillage team will spend a year brainstorming, designing, placemaking,, and hosting promotional events as part of their education and outreach strategy. AfroVillage continues to fundraise to support the Homebase project as well as their other efforts.

A person stands in front of a mural in the shape of a max train and speaks to people at an event.

Learn more and get involved

LaQuida Landford, founder of the AfroVillage movement, and Marta Petteni talk about their collaboration on the project.

GRAY Magazine video (May 6, 2021): When DESIGN meets ACTIVISM | ITDL S2 E4