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Change Portland's unfair housing policies
The Black Lives Matter movement exploding across the nation has awakened many to the systemic racism in our society. But some Portland neighborhood associations are still half-asleep. It shows in their opposition to long-overdue housing reforms.
Let's be clear, at the outset, what "systemic racism" means. It's often misinterpreted as an accusation that everyone in the system is racist. But it actually means almost the opposite — that even when no one is racist the system can still mistreat people of color because of how it's set up.
Take school funding. Some states still pay for schools through local property taxes, which means schools in mostly white school districts are better funded than schools in mostly nonwhite districts because property values are usually higher there. The problem is not that white taxpayers are racists, but that the funding system is.
So, too, with housing. Most American cities, including Portland, are largely segregated by race. That began by design. Laws were passed to exclude people of color from desirable neighborhoods. Realtors and banks conspired to the same end, refusing to show homes in those neighborhoods to nonwhite buyers, or to lend them money to make a purchase there. Those overtly racist laws and practices ended eventually, but cities remain segregated because of new laws and practices that are neutral on their face but exclusionary in effect.
The biggest problem is single-family zoning, especially when combined with minimum lot- or house-size rules. People of color have disproportionately less wealth and income than whites and thus are less able to afford a big house on a big lot — which keeps them out of neighborhoods where that's the only housing option.
The solution to this systemic problem is to change the zoning laws to allow smaller and more affordable dwellings in single-family zones. The Residential Infill Project, which Portland is planning to adopt, would do just that. It would allow more ADUs in those zones, and duplexes on any lot within them, not just on corner lots where now allowed. It would also allow triplexes, fourplexes, and cluster cottages in some places.
These less-costly housing options would make neighborhoods that are disproportionately wealthy and white more affordable to all, including people of color. But directors in some neighborhood associations oppose the RIP, as they oppose any attempt to diversify their neighborhood's housing stock. They often complain that the RIP would "change the character" of their neighborhoods. And, indeed, it would, if only just a little. That's the point.
Some associations hope to circumvent the RIP by turning their neighborhoods into historic districts, making it difficult, if not impossible, to alter the exterior of existing structures and, hence, just as difficult to create the new dwellings the RIP would otherwise allow. The Laurelhurst Neighborhood Association did that, and the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association is trying to, even though most Eastmoreland homeowners rejected the proposal in an earlier election.
I'm sure the directors of these associations are acting with good intentions. But the housing policies they're trying to perpetuate are themselves perpetuating systemic racism.
Let's hope the directors come fully awake and finally see that you can't have a diverse neighborhood without a diversity of housing within it. It's the housing that mostly determines who lives there — who wants to and can afford to.
Pass the RIP.
Tom Christ is Portland lawyer who lives in Eastmoreland.
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