This essay is part of a series that accompanies NCRC’s 2019 study on gentrification and cultural displacement. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of NCRC.
Portland, the largest city in the state of Oregon, is reputed to be the whitest city of its size in the United States. According to the 2017 U.S. census data, Portland’s population is 77.4 percent white while the Black population has dwindled from a high of 7.7 percent in 1990 to just 5.7 percent today. Though much has been written about the institutionally racialized roots of inequality in Oregon, contemporary factors are making it worse..
“Take a group of people who have been systematically denied wealth-building opportunities for generations, add low, stagnating incomes, throw in a subprime mortgage disaster, spiraling housing costs and wholesale community displacement, and you have a recipe for a severe economic backslide,” Cheryl Chandler-Roberts, executive director of Portland’s African American Alliance for Homeownership said in 2017, quickly adding, “There is no African American community in Portland at this point. It’s a scattered community.”
Shifting neighborhoods: Gentrification and cultural displacement in American cities
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My family moved to Portland in 2002, leaving a rural Oregonian community that offered no economic or social future for us. But by 2010, Portland would be following the same trajectory for my family and thousands of others. More than 10,000 African Americans would be displaced from their neighborhoods between 2000 and 2010. I am one of those people.
Given the small size of Portland’s Black community, and its history of social, economic and political exclusion, data masks the disparate impact 21st century development is having on residents of historically African American communities in the city.
Despite Oregon’s post-recession economic resurgence, low-income African Americans continue to be left out of economic revitalization, experiencing disproportionately poor economic impacts and making them vulnerable to being pushed out by ever increasing rents and exclusion from economic opportunity.
In 2017, the median income for Black households in Portland was roughly $27,000 (compared to $57,000 for white households). In addition to earning less than half as much as their white counterparts, median-priced two-bedroom apartments in the North Portland Interstate Corridor Urban Renewal Area (ICURA) eat up nearly 80 percent of those funds each month, meaning hardworking but under-compensated families are severely cost burdened, leaving little for food, transportation, childcare or healthcare.
Homeownership is also out of reach for most Black Portlanders. The estimated homeownership rate for African-American-headed households is 27 percent, slightly less than half that of white-headed households. What’s more, the estimated homeownership rate for Portland’s Black households dropped sharply by more than 10 percentage points from 2000 to 2015.
In August 2000, the Portland City Council approved the Interstate Corridor Urban Renewal Area Plan. The creation of the ICURA and its accompanying investment in the heart of the African-American community catalyzed the demographic and geographic shift from historically African-American communities within Portland to the outskirts of the city.
In 2011, Nikole Hannah Jones wrote in The Oregonian about this process:
“Those who left didn’t move to nicer areas. Pushed out by gentrification, most settled on the city’s eastern edges where the sidewalks, grocery stores and parks grow sparse, and access to public transit is limited.”
Since 1990, 25 percent of African Americans have been pushed out of Portland entirely. Those that remain are increasingly marginalized and blocked from taking part in the amazing transformation of Portland into one of the most livable places in the country.
Since 2000, all ten of the city’s majority minority neighborhoods have become majority white, where investment and racialized displacement resulting in net losses of over 900 African Americans. In Multnomah County, the 2014 Report Card on Racial and Ethnic Disparities warns that this pattern is only expected to continue, with losses to every community with significant numbers of Black residents.
Mitigating this situation will certainly require multivariate interventions given the scale and magnitude of serial forced displacement and gentrification of Portland’s African-American community members, the lack of connectivity to economic opportunity and the dearth of asset holding. Population stabilization and repatriation will require process and policy innovation, and political will. A promising policy, if more broadly applied, is Portland’s unique “Right to Return” Preference Policy.
Recognizing that past city actions have marginalized and displaced many longtime residents of North and Northeast Portland, the Portland Housing Bureau (PHB) developed the Affordable Housing Preference Policy as a tool to prioritize impacted households for housing opportunities in affected areas. The Preference Policy aims to address the ongoing impact of this legacy by giving priority to households with generational ties to N/NE Portland — i.e. current and former residents and their descendants of specific areas that were subject to high levels of urban renewal.
Since gentrification is exacerbated by lack of affordable housing, cost burden and low incomes, going forward an innovative application of this policy would expand it beyond affordable housing to include economic development opportunities.
Further, as suggested in the 2011 Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice, “Other tools that mitigate gentrification are aimed at improving the income of current residents so they can afford to stay in an area of rising rents. These strategies include “community agreements” that specify employing residents when large capital investments are being made, offering loans and grants with good terms to current business owners and rental assistance that is set to market rental rate…”
Another promising initiative is Right 2 Root, an economic community development tool designed with, for and by community members impacted by gentrification as a less discriminatory alternative that meaningfully involves community members in the redevelopment of their neighborhoods, especially communities of color and others historically not invited to participate in development and decision making regarding their own neighborhoods. Involvement in the initiative includes defining the issues and having a voice in the decision making process.