Gentrification is the issue

by Steve, April 22nd, 2008

So why aren’t the candidates for Portland mayor talking about it?

It is undeniable that housing prices in Portland have outrun the ability for the local job market to sustain them. Yet our city government continues to promote and subsidize the kind of high-density development that seeks to encourage (and cash in on) this trend.

As I wrote yesterday, Sam Adams and Sho Dozono represent real estate developers and the business community respectively, so they’ve got no real interest in tempering the trend of total gentrification in Portland’s residential core.

Adams went so far as to posit that there is “too much affordable housing in North Portland” at Sunday’s North Portland Candidates’ Forum, exposing himself as someone who 1) can easily be construed as a racist and 2) doesn’t have the faintest clue what gentrification means to the working and middle classes of Portland.

I thought it would be an interesting exercise to use Google to plumb the depths of this issue in the current races for city government. I searched for the term “gentrification OR gentrify” on the candidates’ campaign sites, and was not surprised to be greeted with the sound of crickets chirping on most of them, starting with Sam Adams and Sho Dozono.

Going down the ticket to city council seat #1, the seat Sam Adams is leaving to run for mayor, we’ve got more crickets from Chris Smith, John Branam, Charles Lewis and Jeff Bissonnette.

Amanda Fritz wins the prize for actually using the word “gentrification” on her campaign Web site, stating “The most pressing issue is the gap between people who are doing well, and those who are not.”

On to seat #2, being vacated by Erik Sten mid-term, things get a little more interesting. Nick Fish gets a hit on his response to a housing opportunity quiestionnaire, where he states (PDF) “Lower home ownership rates for people of color translates into lost opportunities to create wealth, less stable neighborhoods and leaves minorities more vulnerable to displacement because of gentrification.”

But Jim Middaugh also gets a hit for his “issues” page, where he notes “Portland’s African-American community, with its traditional base in North and Northeast Portland, is determined to thrive in the face of the powerful forces of gentrification and hold together a sense of community.” He also talks a good game about “Keeping Portland Affordable.”

Middaugh is Erik Sten’s chief of staff, and Sten is known for his work on housing. Specifically low-income housing and homelessness, i.e. the very low end of the spectrum. Middaugh, of course, wants to carry on this work, which is commendable. But we need to distinguish between issues of subsidized housing and gentrification. Yes, they’re both pieces of the same puzzle. But my reading of Sten’s policy is that while he’s done great work on the low end, he’s done little to nothing on the issue of preserving affordable housing for the working and middle classes. In fact, he’s been right on board with the development policies that feed gentrification.

Middaugh has shown himself to be in league with the “smart growth” crowd, citing the 300,000 coming residents and the need to continue subsidizing (and otherwise encouraging) high density condo development all over our city.

Maybe I’m being unfair to Middaugh, but I don’t think we should expect any great departure from Sten’s policies, and the proof is in the pudding. I know I couldn’t afford my North Portland house at today’s prices, and I just bought it eight years ago.

Unfortunately, the seat #2 race has been quickly reduced to a two-way between Middaugh and Sten. It’s unfortunate, because Ed Garren has been quite up front about how city policies encourage gentrification. “The current gentrification model encourages persons of lower and moderate means to move to the edges of, or out of the city. The issues involving traditional communities of color in the city relate directly to this issue, and it is a nationwide situation, not just in Portland. The city needs to decide if all neighborhoods in the city are going to offer economically diverse housing, or are we going to continue to ‘red line’ neighborhoods and create policies that favor some groups and discriminate others,” writes Garren in response to the Housing Opportunities questionnaire.

That’s the kind of plain talk I’d like to hear from the other candidates.

Actually, I’d settle for any kind of talk.