PORTLAND - In April, 2015 the City of Portland's Housing Bureau posted an odd advertisement on-line. Announcing that it was a preference to "long-time and displaced residents" to buy a home in the North/Northeast neighborhood of Portland, an area across the Willamette River downtown and just south of the Columbia that, reports the City, once was the outskirts and, two decades ago was "home to the highest concentration of African American residents anywhere in the city—or in the state."
"Past City actions," it explained, "have marginalized and displaced many longtime residents of North and Northeast Portland." The Bureau has "developed a preference policy to prioritize households with generational ties" to the neighborhood for Bureau-developed rental and homeownership opportunities in the area. Financial assistance would be provided.
The ad raised the hopes of residents who have been or who are at risk of being displaced the rising rents and home prices that always accompany gentrification. On the other hand, it probably raised eyebrows for many others. "What have they done to deserve a preference," some might complain. "If they can't handle change in their neighborhood," others may say, "maybe they should change neighborhoods."
Reasonable reaction, maybe, as long as you're not the one uprooted, not the one with the eviction notice pasted on your front door. Just ask HUD Secretary Julián Castro. As a former two-term Mayor of San Antonio, the nation's seventh-largest city, he knows a thing or two about what gentrification does, seen its good side and bad and just plain ugly side. And knows what it can do even to people with the longest roots in the community.
People like Helen and Nelson Murray, a husband and wife who "have spent more than 60 years" in North/Northeast Portland, he told a HUD conference held earlier this year at HUD Headquarters, "Their children graduated from the local school system, they shopped for groceries at the Safeway near Lloyd Center, and their family attended the Emmanuel Temple Church on North Sumner Street.
"When they moved into their house on Northeast 11th Avenue, the neighborhood was split fairly evenly between black and white families. But its demographics began to change as time passed. And pretty soon, the Murrays were one of the last families of color still left.
"After an accident forced Nelson to retire from his job at an iron factory, the family began falling into debt. And as prices around them grew, they found it harder and harder just to get by. At one point, they faced the prospect of leaving the home they loved so dearly.
"It's something Helen could barely think about. She said that if she ever had to move, she couldn't bear returning to the street, even for a visit. It would," she told Willamette Week, "simply hurt too much."
Fortunately, the Secretary reported, the Murray' plight came to the attention of a single mom named Liz Getty who lived across the street. She launched "an online crowdfunding campaign to raise more than $6,000 in construction materials for badly needed repairs" including a new roof and upgrades to meet codes.
A happy ending for the Murrays. But how about other people in other places at risk of being? Market forces always are relentless and rarely forgiving. "A tipping point is reached in the neighborhood. Its culture, its economics, its essence has changed completely. And it's no longer a place that the folks who built their lives and raised their families there belong to anymore." Not just in Portland, but in cities across the land.
Municipalities are no match for market forces. At best, usually, they can only blunt their impact. Which is where the City's ad comes in. It's part of a five-year, $20 million plan recently by Portland Mayor Charlie Hales to create at least 70 new homeownership opportunities, build up to 140 units of new affordable housing and to substantially-renovate some 250 homes for low- and moderate-income families. "What happened in the past," Maxine Fitzgerald of the Portland Community Reinvestment Initiative told Oregon Public Broadcasting, "doesn't have to continue to happen in the future."
Good news, hopefully, for the Murrays and other long-time, but at-risk residents of North/Northeast. If Portland's plan works, it could be replicable for other cities, other communities experiencing the same pressures.
Future and past are at stake, says the Secretary. "The real challenge isn't just making sure that Helen and Nelson get to keep their house. It's about pursuing smart policies so that the Murrays' children and grandchildren — and families like theirs in changing neighborhoods everywhere — can continue to call the place of their roots home."
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