No more excuses on NoPo displacement

T.A. Barnhart

No more excuses on NoPo displacement

Zip code 97227, North Portland

I am a part of the problem. I would like to be part of the solution.

The chart to the right is a table of the 25 most “whitened” zip codes in the country. Michael J Petrelli, Executive VP of the Thomas B Fordham Institute and an education policy analyst, did a rough examination of census data to come up with this table. As he cautions, this is not hard evidence; it’s his perusal of census data and lacks the rigor he would use in his own academic work.

It’s not rigorous, but it’s close enough.

When I see headlines like this (I found the link in Flipboard), I take a casual glance to see if Portland’s mentioned, hoping, in cases like this, that we are not. So you can imagine my chagrin when I saw my freaking zip code sitting at #24. And while the numbers are not completely awful — this is still a “minority majority” community — the numbers are going in the wrong direction, too far and too fast.

Given that I now live here, having moved in two months ago, I am indeed part of the problem, even if I did replace a white tenant. Here is why I think the number and trend are a problem and something Portland must address.

97227 is at the south end of “NoPo”, the wedge of the city bordered on the east by N Williams and the west by the Willamette River. I love living here. The diversity of the place is wonderful, even if problematic. Like most of North Portland, there are pockets of wealth throughout the area, but for the most part, 97227 is working class. Or has been. Between “gentrification” of older homes by young couples and families and the development of condos and apartments to bring in ever-increasing numbers of young people, the nature of this area is shifting rapidly. Petrelli’s numbers indicate the extent to which this change is occurring.

Prior to joining the Eileen Brady campaign last year, I was ignorant of the nature of gentrification and related issues in Portland. I had heard some of the facts, the number of people moving from North and Inner Northeast Portland to east county and such, but it hadn’t registered in my mind in a meaningful way. However, because I attended numerous mayoral forums where these issues were discussed by members of the affected communities, I began to understand what has been happening for too many years. I’m the wrong person to speak of the nature of these issues, for many reasons, but suffice it to say I received a good education in the sociological and human impacts of NoPo gentrification.

When I moved here in April, I did not buy a house and displace a family; I rent a unit in a triplex. I have to live somewhere, and I ended up living in NoPo, across the street from Unthank Park, just because this is how my rental experience turned out. Whether or not I moved here has no impact on the larger changes going on our city. I’m just another white middle-class man living in an area that is one of the few parts of Portland to have been an historically black neighborhood in a city that is overwhelmingly white. Like I said, I have to live somewhere. We all do. And we live where we can afford, where the lifestyle suits us, where opportunity opens a door. The “whitening” of 97227 is not the fault of those who have moved into the homes and added to the process and pressure of gentrification. They're just people living their lives as best they can.

I’m not sure how much, if any, the City of Portland should be blamed for its failure to take steps to protect the extant nature of areas like 97227. A lot of this is beyond the ability of the City to affect: the great recession, economic development that benefitted certain people and not others, real estate prices and opportunities. Like so much else in life, the influx of white residents and the concomitant flow of African-Americans to the east came about because the City, lead among a host of influential entities, did not see the problem, did not consider the possibility, did not take steps to help preserve the historic nature of neighborhoods like 97227.

It just happened. I don’t think there was any intention behind the changes, but there was certainly no intent to protect and preserve these neighborhoods.

Now that it has happened, and now that gentrification (not to mention hipsterization) of these communities is drastically reshaping Portland and Multnomah County, we have to act. One need look no further than the anger over the plans for N Williams’ traffic to realize that not doing anything is unacceptable. We need economic development policies that benefit the people who have lived in neighborhoods like this for generations, that allow the historic nature of these communities to be maintained to the extent reasonably possible. Portland needs to provide those at the lower end of the economic ladder with a buttress against the tide of other people’s incomes. Uprooting people just because they can’t afford rising market prices can no longer be acceptable.

I don’t have the answer, other than the most obvious: more and better-paying jobs for the people who live in NoPo. Housing policies that keep people in their neighborhoods. Development that does not displace. We may have stumbled into these circumstances but we have no more excuses. We either address the need directly or all the blame we might have side-stepped before will be inescapable.

And Portland will be an uglier city for it.

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    I'd make the case that gentrification isn't just a phenomenon related to housing, although political rhetoric seems to treat it as such these days. Housing certainly plays a role, but the bigger concern is how the changing community demographics in turn changes the cultural character of neighborhoods (access to, for example, culturally-specific foods or culturally-situated businesses).

    I like the term "hipsterization," especially when looking at Mississippi/Albina, the Alberta area, etc., because I think it encapsulates the real tragedy of the last half-century in North Portland: a disregard for the pre-existing institutions that create the unique character of neighborhoods, and the city-supported economic development policies - urban renewal areas and such - that foster that cultural

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    Brad Schmidt at the Oregonian recently wrote a great series of very relevant articles on the failure of housing policies in the Portland area over the last decades. It's must reading:

    Locked Out: The Failure of Portland-area Fair Housing

    It's a shame that the series appeared during the post-primary lull in Portland's mayoral and council races; we need to hear much more discussion of this.

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      yes we do. the issues involved in N/NE Pdx are linked to those in East County. they're linked to our homelessness problem, and our income inequity problem, and the inequity in school support. these things are all of a piece, and they also share this in common:

      we can't do a damn thing about them unless we, as a city-wide community, to do so. and that runs counter to the trends in American political & social life under the right-wing power structures of the past 3 decades.

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    I don't feel "black guilt" when I make a neighborhood less white. Why would I feel white guilt for making a neighborhood less black?

    I live just across the 97227 border. It's pretty clear that my biracial background and South American housemate add the only dash of ethnic diversity to our block. If that's not our only change to the composition of the block, we certainly aren't lowering property values, which will at some point push out lower income (and necessarily white) residents.

    Zip codes and race being what they are, I don't know if they're a good way of reading anything into the disparate issues of whitening, gentrification, or socioeconomic justice.

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    The current trickle of gentrification is only a preview of the tide of white suburbanites that is going to hit inner city neighborhoods when the petroleum shortages of the near future really begin to make an impact. Many thousands of families who now inhabit McMansions in suburbia are going to be bidding up the price of close-in urban real estate at a pace that will make our heads spin.Their former homes will be available at prices attractive to low-income folks who will manage their expensive commutes as best they can.

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    Well, gentrification comes in many forms - some bad, some good. In fact, it's mostly always good and bad, all at once, and the challenge is to reduce the bad impacts while encouraging the good impacts.

    Nearly a decade ago, we bought a small place just north of Alberta. It was before it became the hipster haven it is now - though we could see that coming over the horizon.

    Our neighbor was an older African-American couple. One day, I was chatting with the husband, a Vietnam vet, and I bashfully mumbled something about how it must be difficult to watch the neighborhood change will all the new residents coming in (i.e. white young people.)

    His response? He told me that in the 70s, the neighborhood had been a thriving home for middle-class working families. But in the late 80s and early 90s, it had become crime-infested and full of "punks and thugs". He told me that while the color of the community was changing, he was thrilled that young middle-class couples with children were moving in again (and then he gave me that look that said, "you're having kids soon, right?") And that was what mattered most to him.

    Good gentrification. Bad gentrification. They usually go together. The only question is how to balance and manage the change.

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      The owner of "Grandpa's BBQ", Leonard, (Now Por Que No just down from Mississippi pizza) who was the "Mayor of Mississippi" is also thrilled that it has now become a thriving community.

      He lived through the hell of the gangs and drug era.

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    "Hipsterization" is not a bad thing (bad fashion notwithstanding). When I was a kid it was dangerous to walk these neighborhoods. Drug deals and prostitution was rampant. Now, there are creative small businesses springing up everywhere, street art, and venues that support a thriving artist community. If you are creative, and work hard, you can live anywhere you want.

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      "If you are creative, and work hard, you can live anywhere you want."

      So, John-Paul, is your implication that all the people in the sad history that Brad Schmidt just documented in his series are neither hard working nor creative?

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    update: Petrelli has redone his list, and 97227 is now at #20. yay.

    and 97211 is at #35.

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    I don't think it's acceptable to just assume that East County will continue to be a bad place to move to. It is the epicenter of affordability for Portland now. The challenge is to transform it into yet another set of livable neighborhoods, so that folks who need affordable housing can comfortably make the choice to move there, and still maintain a high standard of livability.

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    Two non-comprehensive thoughts:

    (1) Real estate markets being what they are, as a neighborhood becomes more livable, its rents (and housing prices) go up, driving those living on the margins to move on.

    (2) There is, of course, a racial and ethnic component to this dynamic. I have my own small window into it. As a more Mandarin immersion advocate, I have been pushing Portland Public Schools to develop a Mandarin (and, maybe, a Japanese) immersion program in one of the elementary schools just to the north of zipcode 97227. And I’ve been urging PPS to fund a high school study abroad program so that poor African-American high school students would have an opportunity to study abroad. Such educational changes could create a different economic/racial trajectory for the neighborhoods. So far, PPS has little interest.

    See my three blog posts: (1) Should poor, African-American learn Mandarin? (2) “It is particularly important for African-American students to study abroad” (3 ) PPS Racial Equity Plan lacks Mandarin/Japanese immersion and study abroad opportunities for African-American students.

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    Gentrification is an unavoidable outcome of free market property rights in good times. To minimize it requires considerable government intervention. The tools available: rent control, property tax homestead exemption, real, rather than ornamental low-income housing requirements cost money and are hated by developers and free-marketeers.

    We could make a big difference with this and many other societal problems by returning to the 94% top bracket tax federal income tax of 1944 and spreading that money around. Big problems require bigger solutions, not band-aids.

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