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.

5 Responses to “Gentrification is the issue”

  1. Comment from Greg:

    I’m just going out on a limb here, but with many major cities experiencing the shift of “inner city” being dangerous to hip, what makes Portland better or worse than these cities?

    As a black man not from Portland, gentrification happens all over and I have yet to hear what a successful policy to prevent it or stem it looks like. I think looking to local government as somehow a large real estate market force ignores the fact that once white people decide something is cool there ain’t no stopping them.

  2. Comment from Steve:

    Valid point, Greg. But we don’t have to invest public money to subsidize gentrification. That’s my point. Whether or not we can craft public policy to prevent (or at least ameliorate the effects of) gentrification is a more difficult question.

    As a white man living in a diverse neighborhood (our neighborhood high school is the only majority black high school in Oregon), I want the neighborhood to retain its multicultural roots.

    I don’t want the city to spend my tax money pushing its vision of high-density condos down our throats, which will only displace more black-owned businesses and minority residents with chain stores and rich white folks.

  3. Comment from dyspeptic:

    There is a long list of stuff I don’t mind paying taxes for. Subsidizing the development of big ugly condo farms by and for rich people is not on it.

  4. Comment from PDX Renter:

    Do you have a source for that quote from Sam Adams…where he said North Portland housing prices are “too affordable”.

    If I can verify the source, I am going to write a letter to his campaign making it very clear I will not be voting for him if he is that out of touch.

    On a similar note, I went to the the Women, Race, and Gentrification film presentation on 4/10 and found the film very well done. The panel discussion afterward was interesting, but only one of the panelists had a good handle on the issues.

    I did get to hear several white homeowners stand up to talk about how “guilty” they felt for moving in and displacing the indigenous population. It is nice to get the acknowledgment, but at the end of the day they go back to their overvalued home and the poor go back to whereever it is they go now.

    Listening to the stories and feelings of those displaced by gentrification is not a bad thing, but it does nothing to change conditions and certainly does not “heal” the displaced.

  5. Comment from Steve:

    I heard it with my own ears. There were some people video taping the event, but I don’t know who they were, or if they’ll be posting the footage anywhere.