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In Portland, a neighborhood designs its own solution to displacement

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Right 2 Root, a community-created plan, offers a blueprint for pushing back against displacement and disinvestment

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Portland, Oregon, is celebrated for its urbanism and charm. From its natural beauty and bikeability to the Portlandia brand of over-earnest hipness, Portland has plenty of reasons to be listed among the most livable cities in the country. Alt-weekly Willamette Week spoofed the city’s international fame with an article earlier this year, “Portland is Still No. 1 in Semifactual Superlatives.” (“Reason no. 23 to love Portland right now”).

While Portland is lauded for its livability, historian Karen Gibson asks “livability for whom?” Gibson’s 2007 paper, “Bleeding Albina: A History of Community Disinvestment, 1940–2000,” remains a canonical text for exploring the city’s small African-American community, and how its members have suffered from accelerated gentrification and subsequent displacement.

Considered one of the least racially diverse major U.S cities—Portland is 77.7 percent white and only 5.7 percent African American, according to recent census data—its black community has often found itself priced out of the Albina area, its historical home in the northeast section of the city. Of the roughly 38,000 black Portlanders who lived there a decade ago, 10,000 have been pushed to other parts of the city.

“Portland is an exemplar of an urban real estate phenomenon impacting black communities across the nation,” Gibson writes, arguing that the fate of this relatively small community has lessons for similar ones across the country.

A team of local community organizers, architects, and designers also believe the Albina neighborhood can serve as a model to help reinvest in and restore communities feeling under siege. At the same time as a series of city-initiated housing and investment plans attempts to mitigate the impacts of the city’s rapid growth, the grassroots team’s community-led new design proposal wants to help provide Portland’s black community with new places to “express our culture, benefit from investment through jobs, education and business opportunities, and have ... opportunities to make our lives better.”

Called Right 2 Root, the community-led design initiative released a report earlier this month that lays out a blueprint for creating community assets, housing, and commercial space throughout Albina. The brainchild of Cat Goughnour, an Oregon-born sociologist, policy expert, and housing and equity advocate, the report is a framework for community-led urbanism. Crafted with help from community members, as well as input from the Center for Public Interest Design, Portland State University, Salazar Architect, and other local design firms, it offers a holistic solution to housing and economic issues. In other words, Right 2 Root is about flipping the typical top-down planning process on its head.

“Often, we don’t hear the voices of those feeling the impact of gentrification leading the conversation,” Goughnour says. “I wanted to upend that.”

Conceived of as an ecodistrict—a sustainable neighborhood planning paradigm that factors in health and environmental impacts—the Right 2 Root plan proposes solutions beyond ones that rely on the market.

Professor Lisa Bates, director of the Center for Urban Studies at Portland State University, finds the approach refreshing.

“Portland likes to be known as smart and innovative,” says Bates. “The city has been doing a bunch of work around bike lanes, for instance, but it hasn’t been attuned to the needs of everybody.”

Albina’s long history of disenfranchisement and displacement

Right 2 Root was named after the concept of “root shock,” which is defined as the loss of place and community that can follow “natural disaster, development-induced displacement, war, and changes that play out slowly such as those that accompany gentrification.”

It’s an apt phrase to describe Albina and Portland’s black community, which has faced centuries of struggle, from significant discrimination, redlining, and racist restrictions to more recent urban renewal and development-led displacement.

A 4.3-square-mile area northeast of downtown, across from the Willamette River, Albina was originally a company town controlled by the Union Pacific Railroad, according to Gibson’s research, and was annexed by Portland in 1891. It was traditionally the home of black Pullman porters, railroad workers who wanted to live near the city’s Union Station.

Beginning in the early 20th century, black Portlanders were pushed out of other areas of the city into Albina. After World War II, a series of large-scale development and urban renewal programs, including the construction of the Legacy Emanuel Hospital and Veterans Memorial Coliseum, as well as a highway that cuts through the area, displaced and decimated these African-American neighborhoods, despite community activism and pushback.

The blight that followed urban renewal set up Albina to be a prime area for urban redevelopment at the end of the 20th century, right as Portland began the first stages of its current boom and expansion. The influx of new residents, trendy restaurants, and high-rise developments has reshaped the area’s demographic profile, as remnants of its black community, and other long-time residents, watch change sweep by. Gibson found that in 1960, four in five black Portlanders lived in Albina. By 1980, it was one in two, and by 2000, just one in three.

“While many black Portlanders appreciate the physical improvements associated with the recent neighborhood revitalization” she wrote, “they also lament the loss of community that has come with it.”

Black Portlanders also haven’t reaped all the rewards of Portland’s recent growth, which during which housing prices have soared (the median home price topped $400,000 in April, rising more than 21 percent in the last decade). According to a 2014 report by Portland State University and the local Coalition of Communities of Color, blacks in Multnomah County, which includes Portland, lagged behind whites in key economic and social indicators. In 2009, whites made an average of $70,000 while blacks made less than half that, at just $34,000. And just 32 percent of black Portlanders owned homes, compared to 60 percent of whites.

According to Walidah Imarisha, an educator and expert in Portland’s African-American history, the story of the city in the later half of the 20th century has been gentrification: a multi-decade structural collaboration between government and private interests, from urban renewal in the ’50s to neglect and disinvestment in the ’80s to a wave or redevelopment in the ’90s that brought funding to the area, but not to existing members of the community.

“Gentrification isn’t unique to Portland,” says Imarisha. “It’s just been accelerated here. If you look at Portland, in 15 to 20 years, that’s where Chicago and Philadelphia will be.”

A map of the Right 2 Root proposal, outlining the locations of different community assets.
Right 2 Root

How to rebuild the community from the ground up

The proposals in the Right 2 Root report go beyond housing, envisioning a more holistic fix for Albina. A new series of public structures in the neighborhood could help rebuild community, provide health and educational benefits, and become catalysts for the economy and entrepreneurs.

Residents could walk from an entertainment space on NE Williams to a food market with a wellness center and rooftop garden. A nearby community resource center on North Flint would house a computer lab and classrooms, while a large commercial campus with a daycare center would provide a centrally located childcare space for area parents. Walkable corridors would connect these new community spaces and emphasize safety. Other ideas include tiny home communities built around a shared garden plot, and the introduction of small accessory dwelling units (ADUs) to provide extra space for larger families and multigenerational living.

Architect Alex Salazar, whose eponymous firm collaborated on the Right 2 Root plan, felt the citizen-led process also eschewed architecture’s typical top-down power structure.

“To me, the most interesting thing about the community meetings was that at the core, it wasn’t just about a housing problem,” he says. “The community is also concerned about jobs, schools, and health care.”

Goughnour’s passion for the project comes in part from her direct experience with the personal impacts of a changing Portland. In 2010, she and her mother were displaced from their home near the corner of Alberta and Maryland in Albina when the Yellow Line light rail came through, and spent a year without a permanent home.

“This can happen to anyone if you have a confluence of unfortunate circumstances,” Goughnour says.

A sketch of a new commercial space for Albina, outlined in the Right 2 root proposal.
Right 2 Root

Portland’s attempts at equity and investment

The Right 2 Root proposal comes during a time when multiple city programs are attempting to address the same housing and community issues. In addition to an array of community development programs and the work of Prosper Portland, the city’s economic and urban development agency, the multimillion-dollar North/Northeast Neighborhood Housing Strategy includes funds for subsidized home repairs, new apartment construction, and a “Right to Return” policy that would subsidize 65 households who were displaced from the area, offering subsidies for 65 mortgages.

While the program only had the funds to make a limited impact, it hasn’t proceeded as planned. This April, Mayor Ted Wheeler declared it a failure, saying he was “highly disappointed” and that the city is “way off the mark,” with only 5 families having used the down-payment assistance since it was introduced last fall.

According to Joe Zehnder, chief planner at the Bureau of Planning & Sustainability, the mayor’s frustration is, at least, a sign that city leadership owns the legacy of this issue and wants to tell the story of the Albina neighborhood.

In addition to the existing city investments, Zehnder says Portland is trying to attack affordability on all fronts, including redoing zoning codes and rules to permit more multifamily units, make room for bigger infill projects, including residential infill, and, ultimately, increasing supply.

But Professor Bates says part of the problem with that approach, and with both the homebuying assistance programs and efforts to increase supply, is that they don’t tackle enough of the problem. In an area of rapidly increasing prices, helping 60 or so families won’t make a big enough dent.

And while rapidly increasing supply in an area like Albina can help over the long term, since more supply is necessary to hold down costs, it can also distort the market. According to Bates, the Albina neighborhood is seeing change accelerate, as more and more buildings come on line and new residents move in.

In the short term, ”new housing supply in a neighborhood increases prices and displacement,” she says.

A policy prescription, as opposed to a fully funded plan, the Right 2 Root project isn’t finished. A second report comes out later this year, outlining ways to unite Albina with displaced members of the African-American community spread across the city. As Goughnour sees it, now is a great time to act. The data around community health and economic wellness, she says, is “damning.”

“There are 35,000 African Americans in Portland right now, and I don’t know what waiting is going to get us,” she says. “I am eager for there to be some sense of urgency.”