Where are all the Black People? A look at Portland’s attempt to atone for decades of housing discrimination

Submitted by Kyler Wang on Thu, 01/23/2020 - 10:52 - 0 Comments
In 2017, Portland pioneered a social-engineering project on a grand scale, the first of its kind in the United States. The city attempted to become the first in the country to try to atone for generations of displacing communities of color through gentrification. 
 
It’s no accident that Portland is (one of) the whitest cities in the United States. In fact, the city has a well-documented history of discriminating against people of color through housing policies. In 1859, the Oregon state constitution made it illegal for black people to live within its borders (in fact, the language of the constitution wasn’t amended until 2001). In 1926, Oregon changed its laws to allow black people to live in the state, but only in redlined inner North/ Northeast Portland. Beginning in the 1960s and 70s, a campaign of gentrification, fueled by urban renewal, began displacing these black communities. In 1970, 50-84% of North/ Northeast Portland residents were black, but by 2010 that number was just 18-30%. Now, the Portland Housing Bureau is attempting to reverse the harmful generational impacts of its actions. 
 
How? It would enact a point-based housing policy that gives taxpayer subsidized apartments and homes to those who can prove that they are at risk of or have previously been displaced by city policy. But that’s not the part that stands out: the policy also gives preference to those who can prove that their parents or grandparents once lived in heavily gentrified North/Northeast Portland. The policy is funded through urban renewal, a finance program with a stated mission of improving and redeveloping areas that are blighted.
 
But the policy, so far, has not had the smooth start that the Portland Housing Bureau hoped for. After three years, only 26 families have moved into homes as a result of the new policy. 
 
One problem is that people who were gentrified out and might qualify for new subsidized homes are weary, according to Cupid Alexander, who led the early stages of the project for the city.
 
“People thought it sounded like a good idea, but they didn’t trust it. The funding source is urban renewal, which is often used to create unaffordable housing,” says Alexander. “You can’t have generational displacement, and say, ‘want to move back?’ and expect people to trust it completely.”
 
Urban renewal has historically been the mechanism responsible for gentrification in Portland, according to housing experts. Often, instead of improving the area for residents, however, urban renewal has resulted in increased property values, forcing residents out and taking apart communities. Usually, communities of color are the ones who are moved out.
 
The Interstate Corridor Urban Renewal Area (ICURA), where this preference policy takes place, is the largest urban renewal area in Portland. A report by the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability found that ICURA was in late-stage gentrification, with more than 1,700 residents of color displaced from 2010-2018. 
 
The problem is that home-buying is, in itself, a high barrier of entry, especially in North/Northeast Portland, where property prices are sky-high, according to Martha Calhoun, director of communications at the Portland Housing Bureau. Portland has a “set aside” policy which dedicates a portion of the tax increment from urban renewal to affordable housing however, the money that is “set aside” can only be spent within the urban renewal area. Because housing prices in the North/ Northeast Portland are already high, very few families are able to afford homes there, even with government subsidization. 
 
“It was too little, too late,” says Karen Gibson, author of “Bleeding Albina,” a book that documented the displacement of black people in Northeast Portland.
 
Only 26 families have been moved back in under the new policy, and only 65 homes were scheduled for the initial five-year rollout. That simply wasn’t enough, according to Loulie Brown, director of Sabin CDC. 
 
“That’s a drop in the bucket,” she says. 
 
Another problem is that some gentrified people from Northeast Portland don’t want to move back, according to Mischa Webley, communication manager at the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods.
 
“The city assumes people want to come back, they’re assuming that they want to uproot where they already are and want to come back to a neighborhood that has changed dramatically from the one that they left,” Webley says. “It doesn’t make sense for people to move in just because their parents or grandparents once lived in the neighborhood.” 
 
Loulie Brown, housing director at Sabin CDC, believes that the policy’s goal of atoning for gentrification was inherently flawed. 
 
“It’s almost like they’re offering this preference policy in lieu of reparations. A direct financial payment would have eliminated this whole process,” Brown says.
 
Brown believes that the policy --which gives preference based on where you, your parents, or grandparents lived-- is a worthy attempt at addressing racism. But it is forced to follow the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race. 
 
“Putting it in a geographical way is basically a way not to get sued. I think the idea for the policy was initially racially motivated - as it should have been,” says Brown. 
 
Alexander, however, strongly disagrees that this has anything to do with reparations. 
 
“This is an income-based policy, not a race-based policy,” he says. “There are all these all these other frameworks that need to be included to have a conversation around reparations.”
 
Calhoun believes that while the policy has not been fully successful thus far, it is a positive “first step” toward solving the problem. 
 
Webley agrees that the policy was a good first step, but the danger is believing that this is a solution to gentrification.“I don’t think the policy is bad, I think that it’s good. It’s always good to move people into homes. The danger is thinking that that is resolving the issue.”
 
Drive down 82nd Avenue past Montavilla, Lent, Powellhurst-Gilbert to Creston-Kentworth to see the next neighborhoods at risk of displacement. 
 
As Webley says, “It’s still happening today.”
 
 
 
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