The historical roots of Oregon's affordable housing crisis

By Henry Lauer of Portland, Oregon. Henry is a masters in social work student and the co-chair of the National Association of Social Workers Oregon Chapter's Legislative Committee.

Oregon's housing crisis is front and center in our collective consciousness right now. Skyrocketing rents, spiraling property prices, and an intensifying homelessness disaster are all major themes of public conversation. Yet in the flurry of activity, of outcry, of policy proposals, of determined words from courageous advocates – all of which are as admirable as they are crucial – it is important that we not lose sight of the historical context of the present situation.

The Oregon housing crisis probably began in 1805, when Lewis and Clark reached the flowing waters of Oregon. At that moment Manifest Destiny's massive wheels began to grind into action and the indigenous peoples of what would become Oregon, though they might not have known it, were about to enter a housing crisis propelled by blood and fire.

It is important to remember this perspective; two hundred years ago, everything changed forever in the Pacific Northwest.

We can flash forward 50 or so years to the establishment of Oregon as a state. At that heady time, the only housing crisis seemed to be that there was plenty of land and a desire for settlers to come and take it. White settlers, that is. Slavery might not have been accepted in the nascent state, but neither were African Americans, who, if they did not leave, were legally mandated to be flogged until they took the hint. In the new state of Oregon, only Americans of European descent were entitled to benefit from the displacement and genocide of their indigenous predecessors.

World War II brought its own housing crisis, for Japanese Americans. Thousands of innocents robbed of property and livelihood on a thin wartime pretext. Families robbed of their rights and dignity. An ugly bigotry seized the Pacific Northwest, and blameless folk were punished for looking like a distant enemy (one that never so much as landed a force on mainland US soil).

Post-war Portland brought with it the housing injustice of redlining – blatantly discriminatory bank policies that prohibited housing loans to African Americans outside of specified neighborhoods. Housing developers in areas like Lake Oswego explicitly adopted racial exclusion policies. If you wanted to apply to buy land, you had to show up at the office in person. And so it would be easy to gently but firmly turn away anyone with the wrong complexion.

Flash forward to Portland in the 1990's and 2000's and the "beginning" of gentrification, the shoehorning of communities of color out of the very neighborhoods they had been shoehorned into in the first place. I place "beginning" in quotes because, of course, for people of color Oregon's housing crisis was anything but new.

And so we reach the present. When white, middle class folk are feeling the pinch, finally we begin to talk about the problem. And there is a little trickle down from the current dialogue – affordable housing has come into the spotlight, as though it is news that thousands of vulnerable Oregonians cannot afford to live in a dwelling.

I do not recount this dark tale to invoke a sense of guilt or anger (though these are not at all inappropriate responses). I recount it because if we cannot look at the present crisis in the context of its imperialist, racist, and classist roots, we are likely to end up only helping out a narrow segment of those impacted by this crisis – and not the segment most in need. We not only need to support contemporary groups working to redress Oregon’s housing injustices, but we need to keep connecting the challenges of the present with their historical roots. Otherwise, it seems unlikely that we will ever sustainably and completely transform Oregon’s housing crisis.

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