The dreaded G-word has been tossed around much lately, from San Francisco’s Google bus blockades to Spike Lee’s whip-smart knowledge dropping at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Gentrification is sweeping the nation, stirring up a hornet’s nest of rationalizing and resistance alike. Coast to coast, we’ve got a problem on our hands. This is especially true here in Rip City.
Despite what the “smart growth” urbanists and developers appearing on NPR will tell you, there is no benefit to gentrification. Those who argue there’s a good side are likely deliberately to trying confuse revitalization with gentrification. To be clear, the term gentrification is derived from the word ‘gentry’, which literally translates as ‘upper class’. Improving a neighborhood for those who live there is not gentrification. Improving a neighborhood solely for a wealthier class who will replace the existing residents is what we’re talking about here, and it is not some unintentional byproduct. Claiming that a gentrified neighborhood has ridden itself of crime or poverty is absurd. You’ve only moved the poverty somewhere else while ignoring the economic causation of crime.
We all agree that people being priced out of their homes by soaring rents is wrong – unless you’re the one profiting from the capital housing market, in which case, it’s unlikely you’re reading this blog. It seems, however, most Portlanders talk of gentrification in terms of abstraction. It’s not something they’ve had to personally struggle with. They likely have little historical knowledge of Portland’s racist housing policies, and how these cycles of divestment and “urban renewal” have preyed upon economically disadvantaged classes. People of color have been hit hardest in this town by gentrification. Albina’s black population is a fraction of what it was a generation ago as families are priced out, forced to the slightly cheaper outskirts of the city.
It’s with sad irony that the threat of gentrification finally coming to beloved Southeast Portland has riled white folk mostly over the loss of their precious food carts. However, if you look at the numbers, inner Southeast is hurting a lot more than you’d think, and the people living there, myself included, might be more at risk than we’d imagined.In my census tract, which comprises much of the Buckman neighborhood, the median household income is only $19,913, and the number of residents living below the poverty line is almost 26%. This isn’t deep East Portland, this is the middle of the city core. Yet despite this staggeringly low income level, the median house price for the same tract is $376,494.00 – literally 18 times the annual income of the average wage-earner here. And the average monthly rent for just a single bedroom apartment in the inner core is $1,039.25. Without financial assistance, somebody earning $19,913 would need to spend 60% of their income on solo renting in this neighborhood. It’s been suggested this vast divide between income and price could partly be due to a high number of REACH rentals in Buckman. I’m currently researching more into this. To find data on your own part of town, check out the handy interactive map here at City-Data.com.
What’s truly scary is that this area of town is about to become ground-zero for massive new housing developments. The argument that rental prices will stabilize if the supply is increased simply aren’t based in reality. I’ve personally spoken with several property managers who all say the same thing: rents are determined by averages, not availability. Building owners instruct their managers to survey other local buildings, determining “market values”. They’ll then proceed to increase rents above this average to whatever percentage they believe they can get away with.
It’s called speculation for a very good reason, and it has nothing to do with trite notions of supply and demand. When hundreds of property owners are all playing this game, it’s not hard to see why the rent is too damn high.
Overall, the rent in Portland is skyrocketing. What Chuck Palahniuk cherished as an affordable city a decade ago has seen the rental consumer price index far outpace general inflation, while wages for service class workers have virtually stagnated. From 2006 through 2013, rental prices in Portland jumped 25.38 %. I can honestly say throughout that same period, I make no more money now than I did 8 years ago. Few people I know are fairing much better.
Portland doesn’t have many of the common tools to fight gentrification. Inclusionary zoning is illegal in Oregon. Rent control is something few in elected office will talk about. Yet solutions need to be sought. For perenial communities who’ve made Portland worth moving to in the first place – and for incoming transplants infusing new creative vibrancy, we need to make Portland accessible and affordable to all. We need to build a Right to the City movement.
Please join Rebel Metropolis and friends on your bicycle June 9th at Col. Summers Park at 5:30pm. We’ll be touring some scenes of the gentrification crime, and we’ll be talking about community-based solutions to the housing affordability crisis threatening our city.
See you in the streets.
Disclaimer: I’m not much of a numbers person, so admittedly this post doesn’t paint a very complete picture. Feel free to add links to any data you’ve researched in the comments below.