My View: Eastmoreland district elitist, racist
The question has arisen in these pages whether the proposed Eastmoreland historic district is a form of NIMBYism, or worse.
I've mulled that over and concluded that it is — worse, I mean.
But let's start with the NIMBYism. The historic district proponents want to create special land-use rules for Eastmoreland — rules that won't apply to other neighborhoods. They don't like infill and redevelopment, and they think a historic district would block those things here. If they're right, more of that "bad stuff" will have to go in the backyards of other neighborhoods. That's the very definition of NIMBYism.
Is the historic district also elitist? That's clear too. This neighborhood is more affluent than those into which the district would force more unwanted development. So, the well-off are trying to give themselves a break at the expense of the not-so-well-off. Sure looks elitist to me.
What people really want to know, however, is whether the proposed district is racist. That question is harder and more uncomfortable. But we can't ignore it.
It's not racist by design. I've seen no real evidence of that, and I don't assume the worst about historic district proponents. Just the opposite. I disagree with them about the merits of the district and disapprove of the unfair and undemocratic way they've pursued it, including their disregard of the election we had on it. But I don't question their motives.
That doesn't end the inquiry, however. Even the best-laid plans can have unintended consequences, and something not meant to discriminate can still do that.
Eastmoreland is almost entirely white — about 93 percent, compared to 72 percent for the city as a whole, according to the latest census. And it's probably even whiter in the proposed historic district, which excludes a part of the neighborhood with generally smaller homes and lots.
That disparity is largely because of a long history of overt racism in Portland's housing markets, which included restrictive covenants in deeds (banning sales of homes to African-American and Asian buyers) and redlining by Realtors and bankers (denying home loans to minority applicants). It's a sad story well-told in the Open: Housing "Shut Out" series run by the Portland Tribune.
Those practices have ended, but the legacy remains: few people of color live here. We can't ignore that fact — or its cause — when evaluating a proposal that, as noted, would divert unwelcome growth from our neighborhood to others that are disproportionately nonwhite.`
Nor can we ignore the fact that the city will become more segregated if the district raises Eastmoreland house prices, as proponents claim it will, and thus pushes our homes further out of reach of low-income buyers, who are more likely to be people of color.
Some proponents argue that the district could make Eastmoreland more affordable by discouraging demolitions, which usually result in a more expensive house on site. That argument, when poked, falls apart like, well, like a demolished structure.
There are too few demolition-worthy houses to matter. The district holds 1,280 houses, and only 10 have been demolished there since 2005. That's about one per year on average and, overall, less than 1 percent of the total housing stock.
Raising the prices of so many mostly white-owned houses while reserving one a year at a depressed price for less-white buyers to bid on is just tokenism, often used to give cover to policies that discriminate.
I realize these labels — NIMBYism, elitism, racism — are discomforting. But they fit, I think. And historic district supporters who want to avoid them can do so easily: just withdraw their Eastmoreland-only proposal and, in its place, work with the city to enact rules about infill and redevelopment that will apply to all neighborhoods, not just ours.
Tom Christ is a Portland lawyer who lives in Eastmoreland.