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?
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 Times encourages 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.”
Source: ColorLines | Abigail Savitch-Lew