GENTRIFICATION SPOTLIGHT: How Portland is Pushing Out Its Black Residents (Part 2)

By Abigail Savitch-Lew Apr 20, 2016

In Part 1 of our report, The media has paid a lot of attention to the White “urban pioneers” ditching the city of Portland in search of greater affordability. But the city’s people of color—and particularly, Black residents—have been hardest hit by a major housing crisis there. 

From 2000 to 2013, White incomes grew from about $55,000 to $60,000; Black incomes fell from $35,000 to less than $30,000. One study from last year found that there is not a single neighborhood in the city where an average African-American can afford a two-bedroom apartment.

Due to the combination of falling incomes and rising housing costs, the number of homeless Black people grew by 48 percent in 2015 Though they make up only 7 percent of Portland residents, Black people constitute a disproportionate 25 percent of the homeless population. 

This isn’t a new problem for Black Portlanders. From 2000 to 2010, the city’s core lost 10,000 Black residents. In the historically African-American neighborhoods of the Northeast such as King, Woodlawn and Boise-Eliot, Whites became the new majority in most census tracts.

The Trauma of “Root Shock”

Michelle Lewis, a Black Portland native and therapist with connections to African-Americans  residents throughout the city, knows that when families lose their homes in the historically Black Northeast, they suffer long-lasting economic and emotional damage. “There aren’t a lot of spaces created to talk about the pain of those losses,” she says. “It’s traumatic.”

There is a term for this kind of trauma: root shock. Psychologist Mindy Fulillove invented the phrase while writing about urban renewal affected American cities in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Lewis says that any attempt to compensate for the effects of displacement and discrimination must start with finding safe spaces for emotional healing.

Forced relocation also creates more mundane challenges. Lewis says many of her clients have moved to East Portland or the sprawling suburbs, areas that don’t have a robust public transportation system. Those who can’t afford cars are struggling to get to work, get their kids to school, take older relatives to the doctor and even buy groceries.

Black Portlanders, who are now scattered in small numbers across a wide terrain, continue to deal with familiar problems such as unemployment and poverty, but their new neighborhoods don’t have the social services, mental-health resources, or proximity to Black institutions they could have gotten in the urban core.

The barriers to adjustment, says Lewis, are especially high for clients emerging from prison or drug treatment because they’re trying to go back to communities that have vanished. And because they are often stuck in the shelter system, those with children in foster care face difficulties getting them back.

Lewis and her family live in Gresham, a suburb with a 4-percent Black population that made the news last fall when the Ku Klux Klan left recruitment fliers on people’s doorsteps. And it’s not just hate groups, Lewis says, but also the police.

“My husband has a 1984 Pontiac, old school, Buick car. On several occasions we could be minding our own business. …Police would get behind us and we would be pulled over for no reason and asked where we were going and if we lived in this neighborhood.”

Lewis says that many Black people are giving up on Portland altogether. Yet she refuses to leave. “There’s work to be done here,” she says. “If we keep moving because people don’t want us here, then that doesn’t resolve the problem.”


City’s Efforts a Mixed Bag 

Portland has made several attempts to address what its Housing Bureau has recently described as a “difficult history” [PDF]. But the city’s efforts have often been disappoing.

Portland made strides in the early 1990s, when it solicited the input of close to 3,000 people, including city officials, community organizers and residents, to build the Albina Community Plan. The purpose of the plan was to spur housing development and revive commercial strips in the predominantly Black sections of Northeast Portland collectively known as Albina.

Early versions of the plan included help for low-income residents looking to become homeowners and funding to rehabilitate at least 100 distressed housing units that would go to low- and moderate-income families.  

Yet Lisa Bates, a noted Portland State University (PSU) urban studies professor, says funding arrived late and strategies to upgrade Albina homes did not always help residents avoid displacement. The city claimed it underestimated the strength of the market.  

In more recent years, officials have continued to address Black displacement with varying degrees of efficacy. In 2007, city council passed an ordinance that would redirect funding for development projects in the city’s urban renewal areas to affordable housing.

In 2013, the Portland Development Commission (PDC) ignited a major controversy by selling city-owned land in the Albina district to Majestic Realty, a commercial developer that wanted to bring in a Trader Joe’s. Some residents, especially young Blacks represented by a new organization called the Portland African American Leadership Forum (PAALF), objected to the sale. They called for a mixed-use project that would include affordable housing in the floors above the supermarket and other benefits such as job guarantees for local residents.

Their protests led Trader Joe’s to pull out and nearly caused Majestic Realty to back away. This infuriated some of the older members of the Black Northeast who had long seen the site as an opportunity for commercial growth.

Whatever side they were on, however, most stakeholders agreed the city had unnecessarily divided the community by failing to inform residents about their plans before awarding the contract.  In addition, to lure Majestic back to the project, the city was forced to submit to many of its terms.

Mayor Charles Hales, defending the project to Colorlines, notes that Majestic Realty had hired a Black firm as general contractor. Yet he also says that the PDC has learned from past mistakes. “We’ve learned a lot about displacement and gentrification from the economic change that’s happened in Northeast Portland and elsewhere in Portland, and we now know how to do a better job,” he says.  

For instance, the city plans to build public bus routes serving transit-poor East Portland. But it has hired PSU’s Bates to first analyze whether the project could cause Black people to lose their homes. “Curing blight and replacing it with good urbanism…[is] not enough,” says Hales. “You also have to think about the social impacts of redevelopment.”

Meanwhile, partly in response to PAALF’s protests, the city has budgeted $20 million for affordable-housing initiatives in the Northeast and adopted a policy that gives preference to low- and moderate-income residents who have been displaced or at risk of being pushed out the community—even families that suffered displacement 50 years ago.

While the preference policy is groundbreaking, some planning participants have concerns. Alyssa Isenstein Krueger, an affordable housing advocate and realtor at Living Room Realty, says the city did not heed her suggestion to create a loan fund to help middle-income African-Americans buy homes. She worries the city is underestimating the rising costs of buying a house. 

Charles McGee, the executive director of the Black Parent Initiative, says he’s concerned that residents will return to an underdeveloped neighborhood.

“We’re going to uproot them again with no plan of where they will work, no plan for where will they will shop, no plan for where they will eat,” says McGee. “Systems and institutions have got to be more thoughtful about how they respond.”


Organizing on Multiple Fronts

Portland’s Black community isn’t waiting around for the city to fix the problem. From March through November 2015, a number of Black-led organizations emerged with the goal of staking a claim to the city and creating thriving Black communities.

Their efforts are comprehensive in scope and go beyond building housing that people can afford.  For example, four of the Northeast’s leading Black-led organizations—the Urban League, Self Enhancement Inc., the Portland Community Reinvestment Initiative Inc. and PAALF—have received a grant from the Northwest Area Foundation to improve Black Portlanders’ economic security.

The coalition plans to ramp up social services, help Black entrepreneurs incubate businesses, and develop tools such as community land trusts. The object is to create wealth for the whole community, not just for individuals.

Focusing on commercial development, a new group called the Black Investment Corporation for Economic Progress (BICEP) has plans to put money into Black entrepreneurship, help Black developers acquire land to build institutions that serve African-Americans, and create a “Soul of Portland” brand that connects Black businesses throughout the city via a dynamic website.  

Another organization, the human rights consulting organization Radix Consulting, is interested in engaging with Black Portlanders who have been most severely impacted by past city policies. Their “Right to Root” campaign has brought together survivors of displacement with architects and designers to imagine how underutilized streets and city properties in the Northeast could be repurposed to meet the Black community’s needs.

Since so many Blacks have left the Northeast, activists are also realizing that they have to expand their work beyond the neighborhood. Since March 2015, PAALF has held forums for Black residents in both Northeast Portland and East Portland. Organizers are now developing what they call a “People’s Plan” that will create policy recommendations to address the needs of residents across a variety of subjects, including education, health care, arts, economic development and housing.


Continuing this work, and investing in the visions of the Black community will go miles toward addressing the real roots of displacement. History proves, however, that the city must be held accountable—and it will take not only Black residents, but all Portlanders to turn up the heat.

Marih Alyn-Claire, the native Portlander who struggled for months to find an affordable apartment after a rent hike, calls Blacks like herself “the first casualties” of the city’s housing problem. But shortly after learning that her rent would go up, she noticed a growth of homeless people of all races and ages, often living in tents on the street. Frustrated with the pace of the city’s official state of emergency, she started the Tenants Priced Out Emergency Task Force to press officials for a more rigorous response, including a one- to two-year moratorium on rent increases and the direct channeling of emergency funds to tenants.

In the midst of the 2015 rent crisis, community activists formed multiracial alliances. In the spring, dozens of organizations including the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, PAALF and Living Cully, a nonprofit linked to the Latino and Native communities of Cully, started the Anti-Displacement PDX Coalition. The group is pushing city council to adopt 11 anti-displacement measures in the city’s updated 20-year comprehensive plan.

The Community Alliance of Tenants (CAT), another multiracial group fighting displacement, declared a renters’ state of emergency last September. They aimed to broaden the city’s focus on homeless veterans and the chronically homeless to less-visible victims of the housing crisis, especially tenants of color.

Soon after CAT declared the renter’s emergency, a number of West Coast cities, also overwhelmed by rising rents and growing homelessness, declared their own “states of emergency.”

Along with Los Angeles, Seattle, and the state of Hawaii, Portland is using their emergency status to speed up the opening of shelters. It also enacted a new law that forces landlords who want to raise rents or evict someone without reason to notify their tenants earlier.   

All of the organizing hasn’t been in the city. This year advocates pushed for a variety of state legislative changes to protect tenants. They also called on the state to repeal its unique ban on “inclusionary zoning,” a policy that requires private developers to dedicate a specified portion of units to affordable housing. (Oregon prohibited inclusionary zoning in 1999, when building-industry lobbyists convinced the legislature that cities might require so much affordable housing that they would discourage development altogether. Texas is the only other state with this ban.)

The state legislature took some tepid steps toward addressing the crisis this past March, passing a package of bills that include new protections for month-to-month tenants, the end of the inclusionary zoning ban and a new tax for affordable-housing initiatives.

But the renter protections are inferior to those already in place in Portland, and the inclusionary zoning provision is relatively weak—the “affordable” units need only to be attainable for families making 80 percent of the area median income.

Housing advocates such as CAT executive director Justin Buri mourn the compromises they had to make to get these bills passed. “It is disappointing that tenants are not prioritized in the way other constituencies are,” he says. Still, the year’s organizing efforts had big wins, too: changing the conversation about tenants and winning new allies in the environment and labor movements.

Going forward, activists say they will organize around the November Portland mayoral race and the 2016 legislative session. They are also taking part in a growing national movement that asserts that it’s a right, not a privilege, to live in desirable urban centers with access to transportation, stores and open space.

Indeed, if there is one good thing to come out of Portland’s crisis, it’s that it’s finally mobilizing people of all races to challenge the system of private profit that has ravaged Black people for centuries.

“These are just symptoms of a capitalist system that has failed,” says Alyn-Claire. “Now we’ve reached the tipping point where there’s nowhere else to go. …They have pushed people to the point where we have nothing left to lose.”