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Coalition lobbies city to adopt policies to guide development

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - The new Portland Mercado on Southeast Foster Road is making the Foster-Powell neighborhood - already facing gentrification pressure - more desirable. City officials say the Mercado will provide permanent affordable spaces for Latino- merchants, just the thing needed to head off displacement.  Up and down the West coast, city efforts to forestall gentrification have proved largely futile.

But Portland is giving it a try.

As the city redraws its state-mandated comprehensive land-use plan to guide development and zoning over the next 20 years, it’s poised to include new strategies to ward off displacement of residents when neighborhoods grow more desirable. 

Portland rents are skyrocketing, and a 2013 study by PSU professor Lisa Bates found a host of neighborhoods in North, Northeast and Southeast Portland were vulnerable to gentrification — even a swath of East Portland between 82nd Avenue and Interstate 205. A February report in Governing magazine found Portland has experienced gentrification in more neighborhoods than any other of the nation’s 50 largest cities since 2000. 

That same month, a coalition of 22 Portland community groups released an 11-point plan for tough new anti-displacement policies, and began lobbying city planners and the Planning and Sustainability Commission to insert those into the new comprehensive land use or “comp plan.”

The coalition, which formed just for this campaign, got a surprisingly sympathetic response.

“Right now, we’re feeling like we have substantial success on all 11 of them,” says Cameron Herrington, a coalition leader who works on anti-gentrification strategies for the group Living Cully. The Planning and Sustainability Commission is slated to hold a final work session on the comp plan on June 23 and then forward it to the City Council for final adoption.

It remains to be seen, though, if the good intentions and flowery language being added to the comp plan will result in meaningful change, or if it’s too late to avert widespread gentrification.

Nearly half of Portlanders are tenants. Many live in fear their monthly rent will jump $300, forcing them to move on 30 days’ notice, says Justin Buri, executive director of Community Alliance of Tenants, which is part of the ad hoc coalition. 

In past eras, low-income tenants and people of color were most subject to being pushed out by higher rents. “For the first time in our history,” Buri says, “it’s starting to have an impact on higher-income white renters as well.”

The coalition’s strategies include a displacement impact analysis before the city undertakes major projects, provisions to ease or prevent such impacts, and proposals to add more affordable housing.

“There’s not a silver bullet to (avert) gentrification,” says André Baugh, chairman of the Planning and Sustainability Commission. “All of these things combined can make an impact.”

Why the comp plan?

The comp plan is “where the city articulates its values and priorities,” says Khanh Pham, a coalition leader who works on environmental justice issues for the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, known as APANO. “We don’t see this as the end of the fight, but I think it is a crucial starting point,” Pham says.

The core function of the comp plan is to provide for places where future Portlanders will live and work, says Eric Engstrom, the city’s principal planner overseeing much of the comp plan rewrite. “Displacement is a sign that it isn’t working for everyone.”

The coalition includes nonprofits and advocacy groups that focus on affordable housing, land use and economic development issues, often working closely with tenants and people of color. It was more effective than those working on anti-gentrification in the past because it spoke with one voice, Baugh says.

Separately, the city is studying the idea of granting developers the right to build larger projects, such as in the central city or mixed-use zones in neighborhoods, in exchange for building some affordable housing.

Coalition members don’t want to repeat the widespread displacement of Portland’s African-American community from its historic base in inner North and Northeast Portland as that area gentrified in the past 10 or 20 years.

“If we had some of this in the last comp plan,” Herrington says, “the results might have been different.”

Don’t oversell plan

Engstrom says it’s wise not to “oversell” the ability of comp plan language to prevent gentrification.

Provisions won’t come into play every time a single site is developed or rezoned, he says, and will be more relevant during big land-use changes or public investments.

But the comp plan functions as a sort of constitution guiding the city’s zoning and land-use decisions. “People can appeal if they believe we have not adequately addressed the policies in that plan,” Engstrom says. With regard to environmental justice issues that often are related to gentrification, the new language “raises the bar of the required conversation,” he says.

Perhaps the most important of the 11 policies is the gentrification impact analysis. Once that’s done, the city might know whether it needs to approach a rezoning or public investment differently, or to provide for ways to ease or prevent displacement.

“The idea is similar to an environmental impact statement,” Herrington says. Instead of evaluating the impact of a big development on endangered fish or air quality, it’s the impact on the people living and working in the area. “This is saying, ‘We’re going to make a major investment. What’s the effect going to be on people?’ “ 

One looming example is the pan-Asian Jade District, a mini-urban renewal area on Southeast 82nd Avenue with tentacles along Southeast Division Street and Powell Boulevard.

TriMet’s planned rapid bus line on Powell and Division also could increase property values and rents in the area, Pham says.The area has already started to gentrify.

A smattering of bungalows in Lents was demolished in recent years, replaced by two-story homes sold to multigenerational Chinese families who wanted to live near the Jade District.

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Kevin LaRocca steps a aboard the light rail at the Killingsworth MAX station. A Metro-commissioned study documented how the MAX station led to gentrification in the surrounding neighborhood.

Homebuilders out of the loop

So far, there’s been little opposition to the anti-gentrification package, but the coalition hasn’t vetted it with likely critics, such as the trade group representing home builders and developers.

Developers around the country have adapted to similar policies, Herrington says. “We’re not concerned that demand for housing is going to dry up and development will become unprofitable.”

Dave Nielsen, chief executive officer of the Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland, says his group has been paying attention to other matters, but he was skeptical about the anti-gentrification package.

“There’s good talk by the city that we care about gentrification,” Nielsen says, “and yet other decisions by the city are having just the opposite impact.”

He cites the recent increase in parks systems development charges levied on new housing, and recent efforts to restrict “skinny houses.” Those moves will make housing more unaffordable, Nielsen says.

The proposed new comp plan sets a new, aggressive target for adding affordable housing stock: 10,000 more units in the next 20 years. That would more than double the current supply. But it’s unclear if the ambitious goal will have any impact without money attached.

And some of the new language has been deployed before, and ignored.

The city required a displacement impact analysis in the original Albina Community Plan adopted in 1993, recalls Joe Zehnder, the city’s chief planner. That sowed the seeds for huge improvements in inner North and Northeast Portland, which were so successful that they priced out thousands of African-American residents and businesses.

One of the proposed new comp plan policies — ensuring that urban renewal benefits local communities — was lifted straight out of the Interstate Urban Renewal Area plan approved in 2000, Engstrom says. That plan also contributed to widespread displacement of African-Americans and other low-income residents from North Portland.

Zehnder figures Portland will face gentrification pressures as long as it’s an attractive place to live. Addressing that boils down to two main solutions, he says: build more housing, so demand doesn’t exceed supply; and build more permanently affordable housing. Those are “almost like our best shot at this,” he says.

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