Between its alarming legacy of racism and its skyrocketing rents, Portland, Oregon, has become one of the country's worst examples of Black displacement and gentrification. What will it take for this hipster heartland to live up to its warm and fuzzy reputation?
Abigail Savitch-Lew APR 18, 2016 1:35PM EDT
Anti-gentrification grafitti in Portland, Oregon
Photo: Tony Webster/Flickr
Update on 4-20-16: Portland native Marih Alyn-Claire has notified Colorlines that after months of seraching she has found an affordable apartment in the city.
Marih Alyn-Claire, a Black 64-year-old Portland, Oregon, native, is afraid she will soon be homeless. Last summer, she learned that her rent would rise by several hundred dollars in June 2016, but so far she hasn’t found a decent apartment that she can afford. “I’ve watched the redlining here. I’ve lived through discrimination myself," she said at an emergency housing forum with state representatives and senators in January. "But I’ve always been able to get a place."
Alyn-Claire lives on Social Security Disability insurance and pays for part of her housing costs with a federal Section 8 voucher. In recent years, though, Portland rents have skyrocketed and the federal government’s voucher program hasn’t kept apace—leaving tenants like her to shoulder the cost or meet the streets.
There is no one story of displacement in Portland. Among the 30 others who testified at the January emergency housing hearing was a working-class mother pushed out, a copywriter evicted and grappling with doubled rent costs, and a domestic violence service provider having trouble finding emergency housing for clients.
Despite what's happening, Portland is not widely known as an expensive city. Rather, it is seen as a haven for creatives and nonconformists, the place that the popular comedy "Portlandia" famously deemed "the city where young people go to retire." The New York Timesencourages tourists to “ignore the hype, and indulge in the city’s simple pleasures—from $4 films to a puppet museum” or enjoy “shockingly affordable” delicious eats. Yet Portland is quickly becoming accessible only to the wealthiest iconoclasts. Since 2010, rents have increased an average of 20 percent, the sixth-fastest rise in the nation after cities like New York and San Jose. In 2015, Portland ranked first in the country for the percentage of land tracts identified as gentrifying by Governing Magazine.
With rent hikes of more than 15 percent in the third quarter of 2015, tenant organizations began calling the months of July and August “the summer of evictions.” There’s been a vast increase in the number of single-person households living in Central City, the urban core—often college graduates attracted by Portland’s relative affordability and hip reputation. And thanks to state laws that prohibit policies used to regulate other pricey cities, Portland tenants are vulnerable to limitless rent increases.
New White Majorities in Traditionally Black Neighborhoods
The media has paid a lot of attention to the White artists affected by the rent crisis, the “urban pioneers” ditching Portland in search of greater affordability and a more authentic cultural scene. But Portland’s people of color—and particularly, Black residents—have been hardest hit.
While White Portland has more than rebounded since the last recession, poverty in the Black community has worsened. 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. A report published last April by the Portland Housing Bureau revealed there is not a single neighborhood in the city where an average African-American can afford a two-bedroom apartment.
Black Portlanders suffer enormously from this catastrophic combination of falling incomes and rising housing costs. In 2015, the number of homeless Black people grew by 48 percent. Though they make up only 7 percent of Portland residents, Black people constitute a disproportionate 25 percent of the homeless population.
While the entire city is facing the stress of rising rents, Portland’s Black community has grappled with gentrification for more than a decade. From 2000 to 2010, the city’s core lost 10,000 Black residents. In the historically Black neighborhoods of the Northeast such as King, Woodlawn and Boise-Eliot, Whites became the new majority in most census tracts.
“This is a critical moment for us as a state ... as we’re faced with quite possibly the most far-reaching and devastating housing crisis in Oregon’s history due to unprecedented rent increases,” Katrina Holland, deputy director of the Community Alliance of Tenants, said at the January hearing with politicians. The crisis, she said, ravages “people who look like me, African-American, and Native Americans, on top of generations of racially motivated, dramatic displacements.”
The Racial Failure of 'New Urbanism'
The housing crunch Portland is suffering is happening in cities across the country. White millennials, eager to live close to where they work and access the cultural vibrancy of city life, are driving up demand for housing and displace Black and Latino residents from the neighborhoods they helped to build. One study of 11 metropolitan areas found that from 2000 to 2010 there was an increase in the Black population living outside the urban core in each city. While some Black homeowners may sell their houses and leave the city for better opportunities, tenants are often unable to afford to live in rejuvenated neighborhoods. Other Black homeowners are bought out by eager investors, only to find that they are unable to rent or purchase housing elsewhere.
Portland, a city already abnormally White due to a history of racial exclusion and forced removal of Black residents, is a dramatic example of a nationwide problem.
With its municipal compost system and bike-friendly streets, Portland is a model for the nation of “new urbanism”—a vision of thriving neighborhoods with low carbon footprints. Yet some say that the city has failed to invest sufficiently in the livelihoods of Black residents, depriving them of the opportunity to enjoy recent public investments in the landscape.
“If Portland is trying to be this model of sustainable, livable, walkable, 20-minute cities, and it’s not racially diverse and it’s not class diverse, we’ve got big problems about what that means for anywhere else,” says Lisa Bates, a professor of urban planning at Portland State University. “Is it only viable to use public resources to create a favorable environment if you get rid of all the undesirable people?”
Portland officials say they value class and racial diversity, and are making efforts to address the larger city crisis. Last October, the city, along with Los Angeles, Seattle and the state of Hawaii, declared a housing and homeless state of emergency, enacting measures to open new shelters, legalize homeless encampments and set aside funding for affordable housing. In Portland, the ordinance allowed the city to broaden its current focus on homeless veterans to the city’s growing number of women and families with no place to live. Affordable housing advocates recognize the declaration as a step toward addressing the rent crisis.
Yet will Portland actually get to the roots of housing displacement in Portland’s Black community—roots that run deep, that go back centuries?
Jim Crow, Portland Style
Michelle Lewis, a therapist with connections to Black residents throughout Portland, can see the links between the city’s history of racial exclusion, her clients’ housing instability and her own hardship. Since she and her husband lost their home to predatory lending during the recession, she says, they have been forced to move five times—most recently, beyond the city limits—as a result of rent increases and racial discrimination.
“We’ve felt like nomads,” she says.
Oregon’s first Black residents may have felt similarly. In the 1840s, the territory passed laws prohibiting Blacks from living in the state and punishing those who tried to remain with whiplashes and expulsion. In 1858, Oregon became the only state in the country admitted with a clause in its constitution excluding Blacks. As a result, Oregon’s Black population grew slowly—and those who stayed navigated Jim Crow-style segregation.
Lewis’ grandfather came to Portland during World War II. During that time, the Kaiser Company imported thousands of Whites and Blacks from across the country to build tanks and cargo ships. White Portlanders, averse to the growing Black population, confined most of the migrants to a new development called Vanport, built on a flood plane by the Columbia River.
“That’s where we had to live at,” Lewis recalls her grandparents explaining. “If you worked downtown, you had to be over in that area by a certain time, or else you could be fined, you could be jailed.” (While there is no official record of the so-called “sundown laws” in Oregon, there is a rich oral history detailing how towns jailed Black people for appearing after dark, especially in southern Oregon.)
After the war, Portland residents wanted to get rid of Vanport and developers hoped to reclaim the property for parkland and manufacturing use. In 1948, they got their wishes: After city officials failed to warn residents of rising river levels, the dikes broke, flooding Vanport and killing 13 people. Lewis’ family lost their home in the flood.
Like many other Black residents of Vanport, the Lewis family settled in the Albina neighborhood of the Northeast, one of the only areas of the city where realtors would sell to Blacks. As White residents fled to the suburbs, banks redlined the neighborhood, depriving Black tenants of the opportunity to obtain mortgages and build home equity, while investors purchased homes with cash and let them sit empty. With the city turning a blind eye and rising poverty, crime and unemployment, White Portlanders began to view Albina as a dangerous slum.
Yet when Lewis looks back on her childhood in Albina, she remembers a close-knit community and good times spent on friends’ porches, climbing fruit trees and playing four-corner kickball. “We would play outside all day ‘til the streetlights came on,” she recalls. “You could go and knock on your neighbors door—my mom would say, go and knock Mrs. Shirley’s [door], I need an egg. ... You knew everybody in the neighborhood.”
Instead of nurturing this community, the Portland Development Commission launched numerous “urban renewal” projects with the purported goal of addressing blight. Aiming to convert the land to commercial and industrial uses, the city displaced hundreds of residents to build a sports arena, expand a hospital, and construct two new highways.
By the 1970s, public outcry against “urban renewal” caused officials to change course: The city let the area remain residential and supported local initiatives to revitalize housing and streetscapes. Yet Black Portlanders were still shut out. White people with higher incomes returned to the Northend, causing rents to rise and uprooting many Black businesses and about one in every four Black residents.
With the loss of many members of this community has come the loss of history, leading to the false perception that Portland is naturally White, or that uncontrollable market forces bear sole responsibility for the displacement. For Lewis, the erasure is painful.
“It’s a horrible feeling, to come to a neighborhood where you grow up in, and have the people there look at you as if you don’t belong,” she says. She recalls Little Chapel of the Chimes, the funeral home where she buried her grandfather.
Litttle Chapel of the Chimes is now a craft beer pub.
Find out what Portland's people of color are doing about the city's runaway rents in Part 2 of this gentrification spotlight.
Abigail Savitch-Lew is a housing reporter and fiction writer from Brooklyn, New York. She is a frequent contributor to City Limits and is also published in YES! Magazine, Jacobin, In These Times, Truthout, The Nation and Dissent Magazine.