Can Portland Avoid Repeating San Francisco’s Mistakes?

The city is facing a housing crisis, but despite its progressive reputation, it’s done little to ensure affordability for longtime residents.

Steve Dipaola / Reuters

PORTLAND—This city that prides itself on being different has been experiencing a problem all too common of late. It used to be unique, people say, a utopia where people could get tattoos and ride their bikes everywhere and just be weird. Portland was so affordable, as the slogan went, that young people went there to retire.

Then the city got “discovered,” people started flocking here, the tech companies came, and Portland became more expensive. Oregon has been the top destination for people to move to for three years in a row, according to United Van Lines.

Companies including Google, eBay, Airbnb, and Amazon have opened outposts here; Simple, an online-banking and consumer-finance company, moved operations here in 2011 after having offices in New York and San Francisco and has grown to more than 300 people. Portland has a great pool of creative employees, Krista Berlincourt, the head of communications, told me, and its relatively easy, low-cost lifestyle makes for happy employees.“We can give people a salary where you have a great life for your kids,” she said. When I visited Simple’s offices in Portland’s Pearl District, they were emptying out: Simple has outgrown its space and, like many people in Portland, is in the process of moving to a different neighborhood.

Now, housing prices are skyrocketing in this city of 600,000, as more people move in and new high-rises and apartment complexes go up. Apartment rents are rising at an annualized rate of 14 percent, one of the largest increases in the country. More than half of the city’s tenants spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. News stories abound of whole buildings raising their rent by 20 percent or by $500, or more. Evictions have skyrocketed as landlords make room for new residents with bigger salaries.

It’s all the newcomers, some say. They’re driving prices up and they’re pushing long-time residents out. They’re why Portland was determined by Governing magazine to be the place in the country with the most gentrification over the last decade.

But that narrative isn’t quite right. Portland prices are skyrocketing, yes. And newcomers are generally the type of people who want to live in the center of the city, near transit and bike lanes, which drives up prices for those areas. But it’s not tech or newcomers that are solely to blame. Portland hasn’t been able to slow its rental crisis because in a city that prides itself on progressivism, many of the traditional tools used to create more affordability are off the table.

“I think that there’s a general sense that Portland is progressive enough to be assumed to be doing the right thing, and that’s not the case,” Cameron Herrington, the anti-displacement coordinator at Living Cully, a coalition of neighborhood groups in Northeast Portland, told me.*

Mississippi Ave, in a traditionally African American neighborhood, has turned hipster. (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

Until March, the state banned inclusionary zoning, which mandates that new buildings include a certain number of affordable units. There’s no rent control in Oregon, and efforts to pass just-cause eviction laws have, thus far, been futile. The city has embarked on big urban-renewal projects in the past few decades without putting measures in place to ensure that tenants in those neighborhoods won’t be displaced. In September, the Community Alliance of Tenants, a nonprofit advocacy group, declared a renter state of emergency, asking for a year-long moratorium on no-cause lease terminations, and demanding that tenants receive a year’s notice for rent hikes over 5 percent.

The city has tried to respond. In October, the Portland City Council declared a housing emergency, focused more on helping the city’s growing homeless population by waiving some city laws to allow the creation of temporary homeless shelters. Later that month, the city council unanimously approved a law that requires landlords to give 90 days notice for no-cause evictions and for rent increases of more than 5 percent. Mayor Charlie Hayes has set aside $20 million for affordable housing in North and Northeast Portland. People who have lived in Northeast Portland, which was for decades majority African American, or who have family roots in the area, will get first preference.

But there has been pushback on these efforts, too. Many Portlanders say they don’t want more density in their neighborhoods, that they oppose big housing complexes and in-law units in neighbors’ backyards. (There is a similar attitude  evident in some San Francisco residents’ responses to that city’s housing crisis.)  Some neighborhoods are actually trying to downzone to decrease density.

“There are limits to white urban liberalism,” Justin Buri, the executive director of the Community Alliance of Tenants, tells me. “When it comes to housing and schools, all of that goes out the window.”

The people who are being pushed out of inner Portland neighborhoods are, by and large, people of color, which would be disturbing anyway but is all the more troubling because Portland—like many other American cities—has a history of displacing African Americans in the name of urban renewal. African Americans lived in a district called Albina until the 1950s and 1960s, until the neighborhood was bulldozed so the city could build a hospital and highways. Then African American residents moved to North and Northeast Portland, until the city added a light rail to those neighborhoods in the 2000s  Now those neighborhoods are becoming too expensive.

The city “knew it was going to create displacement, but they didn’t follow through on all the affordable-housing commitments, and things like workforce development and job training, that would sort of stabilize people,” Lisa K. Bates, a professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University, told me.

Between 2000 and 2010, Portland became even whiter, not just because more white people moved to the center city, but also because black people and Latinos moved to the city’s outer edges and suburbs.

Many longtime residents, particularly minorities, are being pushed to east Portland, a neighborhood referred to as “The Numbers” for its high-numbered streets. It can be a 30-minute drive—depending on traffic—and is full of strip malls and poor air quality and fast-food restaurants and other things that seem distinctly un-Portland. Now, people are being pushed out of there, too.

A map of Portland. East Portland is generally considered the area east of I-205. (Google Maps)

Shanequewa Finney and her family are among those being pushed out of east Portland. Finney, 42, lives with her husband and four of her children in a house near 130th street in Portland, where they paid $1,500 a month for a six-bedroom house (this is already far from the close-in neighborhood they lived in until six years ago). But when the owner turned over management of the apartment to a private company, the Finneys were told they’d have to be out in 30 days. Finney got an extension to 60 days, but the time is ticking down and she can’t find anything else. Everywhere she goes, she’s told there are already three other people ahead of her in putting in applications, and prices are double or triple what she’s paying now. She doesn’t want her children to have to change schools—one of her sons is about to be a high-school senior—but she isn’t sure she has a choice. The family is now looking at two-bedroom apartments.“If I don’t find a place, I’ll put my stuff into storage, and… I don’t know,” she told me. “People can come from a different state and buy property, and they have money. I wish they built affordable buildings for us.”

The changing face of the neighborhoods have created cultural conflicts over social norms, Bates says: New residents oppose the outdoor barbeques that had been typical in the neighborhoods while long-time residents oppose the expansion of bike lanes in areas where they’d long been advocating for bus service.

Neighborhoods that would have traditionally been too far for gentrification are preparing for a flood of new residents, and rising prices. Living Cully, the coalition where Cameron Herrington works, is rushing to create affordability before prices spike. Living Cully is trying to “move as much land and housing out of the system as possible into some kind of community-controlled model,” says Hetherington. Right now, about 14 percent of the land in Cully is shielded from the market in some way, to maintain affordability, twice as much land shielded from development than in the rest of the city, he says. Because Cully is farther out, groups such as Hacienda Community Development Corporation, which is a member of Living Cully, have been able to take advantage of the relatively low land prices by buying land and building affordable housing on it. Habitat for Humanity also acquired land there and is building homes.

They’re also working with other community groups to ensure the city follows through on affordable-housing commitments in a way it didn’t in the past. The group Anti-Displacement PDX meets every other week and tries to make sure policies are in place to protect every neighborhood from the churn that the city experienced in the past.

“Our fate is bound up in the fate of our allies in north and northeast Portland,” Herrington said. “We have to be working together city-wide on the policy landscape and getting the right policies in place, really supporting each other in neighborhood-based fights in general.”

A mural in East Portland highlights the neighborhood’s diversity. (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

Herrington and others know that people aren’t going to stop moving to the city just because Portland is getting more expensive. The city’s 20-year growth plan anticipates 260,000 new residents will be moving to Portland, largely because, even with housing price spikes, it’s more affordable than San Francisco or Seattle.

Indeed, despite the affordability crunch, companies can still move to Portland and pay their employees well, and ensure that their employees can have a good lifestyle. The median home price in Portland is $345,000; in San Francisco, it’s $1.12 million.

That’s one reason why tech companies like Simple are listening to the debates over affordability and housing, and they want to be cognizant of the changes, Berlincourt said. Companies moved to Portland to avoid the high prices and rat-race lifestyle required in San Francisco and New York. They don’t want Portland to change, either.

“Will the city change for the worse, that’s the tension,” she said. “Everybody is wondering: Are we going to create another San Francisco?”

*This sentence originally spelled Cameron Herrington’s last name as Hetherington. We regret the error.