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City navigates breakthrough Right of Return policy for those displaced from North and Northeast Portland by gentrification

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JAIME VALDEZ - The heart of Portland's black business community once stood here, on North Williams Avenue near the Urban League headquarters. Longtime and former residents say it is hard to recognize now.Cupid Alexander has no idea how many of the 1,100 people who have applied for housing under the Portland Housing Bureau's new preference policy for North and Northeast Portland are black. Which sort of makes sense, and sort of doesn't.

Alexander has been in charge of implementing the application process for the country's largest neighborhood-wide Right of Return policy. The first round of applications has closed for those seeking a city subsidy that will help them buy homes in North/Northeast or stay in their current North/Northeast homes. Next year will start another round of applications for people competing for rent-subsidized apartments in North/Northeast.

The entire neighborhood has been broken down block by block into one, two and three-point zones which represent the extent that urban renewal took place there. Prove your parents or grandparents lived in a three-point zone and those three points are yours. Prove you live or lived in a three-point zone and add another three points to your total. Prove somebody in your family lived in one of the hundreds of homes that were seized by the city through the right of eminent domain and you go to the top of the list, regardless of how many total points you earned.

The plan is that any new homeowner grants or subsidized apartments involving city money in North/Northeast from now on will go to people with the highest point totals. That's social engineering on a grand scale. And it is groundbreaking public policy on a national scale, according to Justin Steil, a housing and law expert at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

New York, Oakland and San Francisco have all tried to give residents of gentrifying areas preference when a subsidized apartment building goes up in their neighborhood, Steil says. But until now no city has tried to give preference to residents who live outside a neighborhood on the basis of their parents or grandparents having lived there.

"My guess is this is the broadest Right of Return policy a city has created," Steil says. "It's challenging because the nature of cities and urban America is that neighborhoods change."

Part of the challenge, Steil says, is trying to address a hot button issue without mentioning it. That issue is race. Portland officials have acknowledged that past urban renewal policies unfairly targeted the black community. They want to use housing policies to decrease the black exodus from gentrifying North/Northeast. But the federal Fair Housing Act says they can't discriminate in any way on the basis of race.

"How do you do the first without doing the second?" Steil asks.

Portland's approach is to insist the preference policy isn't about race, it's about geography. Everyone who meets income requirements and who lived in North/Northeast, or whose parents or grandparents lived there, can tally their points and apply for homeowner loans or subsidized apartments as they are built. Even at its height as the home of Portland's black community 40 years ago, Albina was about one-quarter white.

"They did it by race but they can't undo it by race. That's the irony," says Portland State University associate professor Karen Gibson, whose "Bleeding Albina" details the impact urban renewal had on Portland's black community.

Gibson says the city's preference policy isn't perfect. She acknowledges that many people, for instance those with roots in other city neighborhoods that underwent urban renewal, might feel the new policy isn't fair. That might include Jewish and Italian residents whose former neighborhood on the south end of downtown was destroyed by urban renewal in the 1960s.

But the policy is fair, Gibson says, if people are willing to accept that undoing racism inevitably appears unjust in the same way the original racist policies were unjust.

"Whatever it is people are not going to like it," Gibson says.

Kurt Creager, the housing bureau's director, isn't shy about the depth of social engineering the preference policy is trying to address. As he sees it, black homeowners who left Albina 40 years ago left before neighborhood housing prices skyrocketed and lost out on the opportunity to accumulate wealth they could pass on to their children and grandchildren. The preference policy is an attempt to reverse some of that.

"We're trying to deal with the corrosive effects of inter-generational wealth building," Creager says.

The city is directing at least $50 million in spending to North/Northeast and over the next decade or lnger thousands of new residents in that area will be those who score highest due to their parents and grandparents. The preference policy isn't a one-time thing. "It could go on in perpetuity as far as I'm concerned," Creager says.

Incidentally, Alexander makes clear he doesn't use the phrase Right of Return because the city policy gives preference, but no guarantees, to those whose families have lived in North/Northeast. Jo Anne Hardesty, a former state representative and president of Portland's branch of the NAACP, prefers another word anyhow.

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JAIME VALDEZ - A white friend had to secretly buy the house that Faye Burch (second from right) and her sister Avel Gordly (center) grew up in because blacks could not purchase Northeast Portland homes in 1949. Now, the city is embarking on a pioneering program to bring back the descendants of old neighborhood residents, but Burch, shown here with relatives, is dubious about the plan.

"No one wants to use the word reparations, but that would be a more honest way to address this systemic disinvestment in the black community," Hardesty says.

The housing bureau's insistence that the North/Northeast preference policy is not about race extends to the application forms filled out by over 1,100 residents so far. The forms don't ask applicants their race. That makes no sense, in Hardesty's view.

"How are they going to know whether or not they have made reparations to the black community if they have not actually identified the race of the applicants?" she says.

Hardesty calls the new policy "a worthy vision," but says a more honest process wouldn't limit those who receive the most points to buying homes or renting subsidized apartments in North/Northeast. She'd rather the points be seen as what they are—evidence that a family was victimized by discriminatory policies—and that high scorers be given assistance to buy homes or rent apartments in whatever city neighborhood they wish.

"Let those families decide where they want to live," Hardesty says.

According to Hardesty that could never happen. "Politicians would have to be honest and say this is reparations," she says.

It would also be "mindbogglingly difficult" to try and assess the eligibility for reparations on a family by family basis, says Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Community Progress. For one thing, there are no objective criteria. Also, much of the information that would prove which families are most worthy may no longer exist.

"I find it half wacky and half admirable," Mallach says of Portland's policy. "The concept is admirable...You're trying to provide a generic remedy for a generic harm rather than an individual remedy for an individual harm."

Do people earning housing assistance because of their family history truly feel connected to North/Northeast or are they simply looking for better housing, Mallach asks. And should that matter?

"The question is, does the grandchild of the person wronged have a right to remedy?" he asks. "The whole question of reparations sends a whole lot of people screaming right off a cliff. It's the grand kids of the offended giving the grand kids of the people who were harmed a remedy. On balance I kind of like it. But at the same time, the race issue is difficult."

Mallach sort of likes Hardesty's idea of giving the highest scorers preference for housing anywhere in the city.

"It's not like people are going back to the same neighborhood," he says of gentrified North/Northeast. "They're going back to the same geographic coordinates." The real problem with giving high scorers a choice of neighborhoods? "You're going to piss off four times as many people," Mallach says.

Development consultant Jeana Woolley has lived in North/Northeast since 1970 and was hired to research the families and black businesses that were displaced as part of the Emanuel Hospital expansion project in the early 1970s.

On her Northeast Portland block there are about 16 homes, and 20 years ago, Woolley says, all but three were owned by blacks. Today all but three are owned by whites. But Woolley isn't sure if her black neighbors who left—or their children or grandchildren—are owed anything by the city.

Most of those departed neighbors were the children of the homes' original owners, who sold the properties after their parents died. "They basically chose a paycheck," Woolley says. "It sounded like a lot of money."

In Woolley's view, families who rented in North/Northeast suffered more hardship than those who owned and sold homes, and should get priority. Many of them—whether their houses or apartment building were knocked down or simply became unaffordable as the neighborhood gentrified—had to find homes with higher rents, and in neighborhoods where they were not welcome.

"The renters really didn't have a choice," Woolley says.

For a Right of Return policy to work, the people who have that right need to know about it. Housing bureau officials over the last year have made presentations at 42 community centers, 18 libraries and 24 nonprofits, and over 3,000 city residents received direct mail about the program. But as far as Germaine Flentroy is concerned, the outreach isn't working.

Flentroy until recently was director of community safety for the Rosewood Initiative, a community center on Southeast 162nd Avenue that serves many displaced Northeast Portland residents. He says virtually none of the people he works with are familiar with the preference policy.

"East County has never heard of this," Flentroy says of the preference policy.

Flentroy says when the city needs to talk to its black community, officials typically deal with what he calls "safe bet African-Americans," black residents from the inner North/Northeast who are connected to traditional neighborhood institutions and accustomed to dealing with City Hall.

According to Faye Birch, who co-owned a house on North Williams Avenue until selling it to the city last year for a proposed neighborhood cultural center, Portland's black community doesn't trust the Portland Housing Bureau to fairly implement a Right of Return policy, and to do it with transparency.

"They're trying to recreate a black community that they destroyed," Birch says. "They're probably not the ones to do it."

Birch and her sister Avel Gordly inherited the house on North Williams which their parents bought in 1949—before most black families arrived in North/Northeast. In fact, Birch says, black families couldn't buy homes in that neighborhood then, so her parents had a white Jewish friend buy the house for them.

Birch, incidentally, prefers the term "Right of Return," because "preference policy" to her sounds too much like affirmative action.

Lisa Bates, director of Portland State University's Center for Urban Studies, also prefers "Right of Return." And she says that the program should not be limited to low and moderate income qualifiers.

"Racism affected all incomes of people," Bates says.

Bates is also concerned about what she calls "micro-segregation." She's not sure how much progress will have been made if North/Northeast becomes increasingly white and high-income except for the black families placed in city subsidized apartment buildings. She'd like to see the preference policy help middle class blacks stay in and return to the neighborhood.

All of which only emphasizes that it's impossible to design a Right of Return or reparations policy that will be fair to everyone, Bates says. Especially when fair housing law says the city can't simply provide either on the basis of race.

"It's a legal way of doing it," Bates says of Portland's preference policy. "If you are a proponent of direct reparations it's probably not the best way of doing it."

And it's unprecedented, says Center for Community Progress fellow Alan Mallach.

"It's the sort of thing that makes people in the rest of the country wonder if people in the Northwest have gone completely bonkers, but in a positive way," Mallach says.

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JAIME VALDEZ - Plans to bring back the descendants of old residents include a mixed-use project on vacant property where black homes and businesses were demolished, like here on North Williams.

Who wants to move back?

"Why would I want to move back?" asks Germaine Flentroy, who graduated from Jefferson High School in 1990 and now lives in Boring.

The city can offer Right of Return priority to residents whose families once lived in North/Northeast Portland, but Flentroy thinks most, like him, won't want to return. "The infrastructure has changed," he says. "You've got New Seasons and Whole Foods. The whole of Albina is not welcoming to us. They could give me a free household and I don't want to go back."

There are few black people in Boring, Flentroy says, but he likes the rural environment and he definitely likes the education his children have been getting at the schools there.

People all over the city are making compromises on where they live, says Portland Housing Bureau director Kurt Creager. He's not worried about a shortage of displaced families willing to accept grants or subsidized apartments to live back in North/Northeast.

Flentroy, who could get the full six points under the city's priority ranking system, is convinced many of those who do return to the old neighborhood will find themselves adrift in an unfamiliar and expensive environment, with few attainable jobs available close to where they live.

"They're going to be very unhappy," he says.

If the city wants to provide reparations for the families that were displaced, Flentroy says, the money would be better spent helping them purchase homes and create community where most of those displaced families now live—in East Portland.

But that doesn't fit Creager's vision for the preferential policy. "It might reinforce the diaspora," he says. "I'm not sure we want to do that."

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