It’s shaken up an influential neighborhood association, driven wedges between our city’s leaders, ignited documentaries, and launched an assembly to air grievances. Even the local adult entertainment magazine has gotten a word in about the topic. Musician Neko Case perhaps encapsulated the feeling best, writing on Twitter:
“Portland, you have turned into a price-gouging hustler with a desperate clenched mouth.“
Make no mistake, gentrification has already come to Portland. Unfortunately, it took the displacement of comparatively privileged people for the topic of affordable housing to become a more mainstream debate. And while the entire city seems to be talking about the changes taking place, few conversations center around solutions.
Earlier this summer, at the heart of the debate were Portland’s two alternative weeklies – Portland Mercury and Willamette Week. Though Willamette Week has always been the more journalist-forward of the two (recently helping unseat a governor), a series titled “Grow Up, Portland” has damaged the outlet’s reputation among Portland’s creative and left-leaning communities by essentially telling readers that current schemes to stem the changing tide are misguided and ignorant. Portland Mercury took a different approach, highlighting the real impact Portland’s changes have had on people not as equipped to deal with the economic shifts. Then came the snark.
The whole incident started over a viral video, since removed from YouTube, for an apartment complex called Burnside 26. Scorned across social media, it caused a WWeek contributor who lives in the complex to hastily write a screed toward people commenting negatively about the property and its inhabitants. Tone-deaf and egotistical, it only furthered the hatred many Portlanders had for the author, new apartments, transplants, and housing demolitions. Then, in a bizarre rebuttal to the backlash, the Burnside 26 writer was given a cover feature titled “Why My Apartment is Good for Portland,” in which he relates the harsh comments he received and reiterates the comfortable features of the building.
It didn’t help. To start, the article doesn’t even answer the premise of the headline: how his apartment is good for Portland, only how it’s good for him. My co-founder at Banana Stand, Louie Herr, remarked that the headline might as well have read, “Why My Castle is Good for Camelot.”
And, hey, that’s pretty funny.
Mayor Charlie Hales, whose reelection campaign is heavily funded by development and construction companies, wrote a letter to the WWeek author, welcoming him to the city and recounting how he too had moved to Portland at a young age with barely enough money for an apartment. Yet this isn’t an oxymoronic “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” tale. The Burnside 26 resident isn’t exactly hurting for money, nor is he all that young. He claims he and his wife, together, bring in just under $85,000 a year and pay nearly $1,400 a month for a one-bedroom unit. He is by no means rich, but he’s doing better than most. He wrote that he assumed his life was typical of Portland. But he should have known better after writing a post about lower-cost neighborhoods that were still bikeable, which noted that the median-family-income (MFI) was less than $50,000 a year.
Alright. So, the WWeek writer typed some, at best, simple and reactionary words that tried to defend his way of living without considering that the bands and garage breweries he hopes continue to thrive in this city need crucial space to do so. That space is increasingly limited and becoming prohibitively expensive. He was mocked, demonized, and held in contempt for all things changing in this town. No matter how you cut it, that’s not doing any good for this city.
The WWeek author’s case unfortunately mirrors another. A recent flyer circulating on social media sites this summer – featuring a young couple asking for neighbors in the Montavilla area to consider reaching out to them first before listing a house on the market – has been almost equally as bashed. On the flyer, the couple claims that they want to purchase a house in the neighborhood in order to be close to family and to turn a portion of the house into a photography and recording studio.
The backlash was swift. People suspected the entire campaign was a ruse, and that homeowners would be misdirected to property management firms or development companies and swindled out of their land. Commenters questioned how the couple could possibly make enough money as creative professionals to purchase a home and mocked their “twee” style. Former Portlander and current San Francisco artist Scot Hampton went as far to create a fake back album cover for the couple’s supposed band.
And, you know what? It’s a pretty good joke.
I reached out to the couple, who asked that their information and faces be removed from the associated image for fear for further online ridicule. Who can blame them. For familiarity’s sake however, let’s call them John and Jane. At the time we spoke, John and Jane were couch-surfing in Olympia, packing up to go to Seattle for a gig, before returning the next morning to play another show in Portland. They do have a band. They are actually creative professionals. John works a couple days a week at a retirement home and teaches music lessons on the other days. Jane is a freelance photographer lucky enough to be employed on a semi-to-regular basis. Together they make enough to cover rent. John and Jane are recent transplants who moved here separately in 2011 and met at a house show that John was running.
John and Jane admit that given their relatively meager earnings they wouldn’t normally be able to afford a house in Portland, especially in the Montavilla neighborhood. But, Jane’s grandfather recently passed away, leaving her a modest sum that might be used for a down payment with added help from her mother. Her scenario is not uncommon, in one form or another, for any younger person trying to purchase a home these days. Still, they’re not hopeful that they’ll find anything.
Online, everyone is an easy target and nothing is good enough. Rumors travel faster than ever, too.
Residents of McCoy Village Apartments, units specifically reopened in 2012 to be affordable and backed with $1.5M in public money, had a brief scare that their housing was being given two months notice before rent increased 100% to the assessed market value. Within hours a photo of the increase made it’s way to the local media; everyone believed the mistake was true. Rents were going up everywhere, it didn’t seem unforeseeable that it could happen to subsidized housing as well.
It’s easy to get carried away when passions are high, and they should be. In a blog post that became so popular that, much like the mocked WWeek writer, its author was given a prime spot in Portland Mercury‘s counter report, a local music critic wrote:
“The cost of living in Portland is a little like going to a funeral for a relative you never met: it’s not your fault and no one’s asking you to feel bad about it, but try to be sympathetic.“
The comparison to a funeral is spot on. We’re talking about the death of the American Dream for more than one group of people.
At best, the folks telling creative people – who helped enshrine the culture of Portland so popular today – to stop complaining, are essentially saying that the dream of being able to make a living and raise a family or live close to major networks of opportunity is dead. At worst, those who dismiss the idea that Portland’s new found growth is damaging to many are telling minorities, families, and low-income earners who have been pushed out to regions with fewer public services, that they’re not resourceful enough to stay; that all one needs to do to be saved is reeducate themselves on the skills the market currently demands regardless of status.
These changes in Portland have tremendous impacts. That’s worth mourning. That’s worth lashing out about, artist or not. But if your only response is “Stay out of Portland,” you’re contributing nothing but an echo in an already noisy space. We need to start having clear conversations about proposed legislation, because the outcry thus far has sparked little change. And City Hall isn’t exactly putting forth many actionable plans, even when working with housing advocates. The recently announced, 11-point anti-displacement proposal is vague on actual regulation and implementation, and was delivered with the same kind of patronizing tone as Willamette Week‘s coverage, underscoring the belief that the average, ultra-liberal Portland resident is too dumb to understand simple supply and demand economics.
To make progress we need to move our debates past anger, mockery, simplified political and economic talking-points, and questioning the supposed impact. That’s not saying emotional reactions won’t and shouldn’t happen or that I’m not extremely guilty of such exaggerated and callous remarks, but they can’t be all that happens. We have the tools and means to communicate at a more effective level. By doing so we can demand our elected officials and media to rise in their level of discussion with us, because we’re long past whether or not these issues are a problem. We need to be discussing tangible local and state level regulations we can advocate and implement soon. And, honestly, those measures won’t first look to help artistic or relatively younger people.
If you’re joking about moving somewhere else, well . . . maybe you should. Portland is likely never to have the same affordable space and anonymous oddity which cultivated certain artistic activity. If you can seriously consider moving to another place to try and start the process all over, godspeed. I may join you. Understand that’s a privilege.
If you’re staying out of choice or necessity and want to advocate for more affordable housing, understand it’s not going to be easy to change policy, especially if we can’t collectively rally behind a set of concrete solutions. And even when we do, the gears of government grind slowly. At the state level, House Bill 2564 to overturn the ban on inclusionary zoning failed to advance earlier this year after attempts also failed in 2011 and 2013.
The process for keeping Portland affordable will be complicated, require mundane detail, and involve parties on all sides discussing a litany of issues. We’ll need to hold city leaders like incoming Housing Bureau Director Kurt Creager accountable to making affordable housing a priority. We’ll have to go to public hearings on the issue. We’ll have discuss real estate transfer tax, public funding investments, new development projects, city codes, incentive districts, establishing accountable boards to oversee new regulation, and much, much more.
Sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it?
We should probably just move to Boise.