The King of NE Portland Real Estate

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

I can’t imagine a better reader to contribute to our ongoing debate over gentrification and urban renewal in Portland, Oregon, than Fred Stewart. Fred writes:

I am a black man who has sold real estate in Portland for most of the past 30 years, and I’ve sold more real estate in Inner North and Northeast Portland than anyone alive today. I just recently closed on my 760th address, and I have well over 1,000 transactions just in Inner North and Northeast Portland (the area you call Albina). I have personally walked into more homes in that area than probably anyone else.

As of this week, I have lived in Albina for 40 years. I was President of King Neighborhood for nearly a decade. I come from a family that can trace its Portland roots back to 1935, so I know a lot of about the city’s black history. I am currently a board member of the Oregon Black Pioneers, which is a group that looks to collate and share Oregon Black History with the people of Oregon.

That’s Fred in the video seen above and the one below—two amazing artifacts from the recent history of the Albina area. “These two commercials, which I produced in 1990,” he writes, “might give you an idea just how hard it was to sell homes that were often given away to ANYONE who would take them.”

In one of the best emails we’ve gotten in a while, Fred has a lot of incredibly valuable things to say about his city, its race relations, and how class comes into play:

I read your series on gentrification in Portland. I think the story is a lot more complicated and multi-faceted than you and your readers have outlined so far.

When I started selling real estate in 1988, most brokers would not sell homes in Inner North and Northeast Portland. It was my hope to sell homes anywhere but that area. We had over 500 vacant homes, gang shootings daily, and a lot of social issues. We had no services, few stores, and no restaurants and bars anyone would hang out in—at least people who were not members of the criminal community. It was not a fun place to live once you left your house.

I started selling homes in Inner North and Northeast on my birthday (December 11). I had to not just sell the homes; I had to sell the community. So as a broker I had to sell the neighborhood’s present, its past, and, most importantly, its future.  

When I started my career, I could not give away homes that in some cases are worth over a million dollars today. Many times I did give away those homes. No one wanted them, and that includes the black people in the community.

In fact, the people in that neighborhood most interested in selling and least interested in buying were black people. That is understandable when you consider two facts about Portland history: 1) Black people were forced to live in Inner North and Northeast Portland (that fact dates back to at least the 1920s), and 2) The area was not a good place to raise kids, and the schools were all bad.

Black people back then were just like our white citizens; they wanted the best they could afford for their children and family. And that meant moving elsewhere—in the Portland market and often out of state. When the property and housing values of Inner Northeast Portland started going up, many black families cashed out and left.

There is a separation in Portland between the black people who have and the black people who have not. If there was ever a study of those separate demographics, I am sure we would find that the black families that owned real estate in 1980 have done much better in general than the families that did not.  

As the older generation of black families died, their children showed little to no interest in keeping the homes or real estate investments that their mothers and fathers left them. More often than not, those black families sold because the values were always shocking. We did not start selling homes in inner Northeast for more than $100,000 (an incredible price for a home in the area) until 1992, and that caused a rush to sell by many property owners in the area, and of course that includes many black families.

Keep in mind that the increase in values was a reflection of the positive changes in the area—changes that many people did not take seriously. I wish more people had listened to me and others when we said things were changing for the better and that real estate values in all sections of the community would be increasing for many years to come. No matter what was said, no matter what changed, most people did not take what was occurring seriously until 2002, and by then it was economically too late for many homeowners.

There is another problem I hope to address. The gentrification of Inner Northeast Portland is a distraction to the black community, a huge portion of which were just kids while the changes were occurring. They now want to buy in the area but cannot afford it yet, so they choose not to buy at all. What Portland needs are young black people investing in real estate in Portland like their grandparents and great-grandparents did—and investing all over Portland, because we are too small of a community to prevent being pushed out of the city economically if we do not own much of what we live on and in. This is critical for the future of Portland.

What we see today was a slow train coming. The only people who are upset are the people who did not take the signals seriously or were too young to do so.

That does not mean the City of Portland is not at fault. It planned for the community to regenerate for wealthy people, and that plan never included people of lower means. (And until the mid-‘80s, the black community was prevented from maximizing their opportunities due to lack of access to capital and the ability to leverage their real estate.) What we are seeing now is a rapid economic turnover of property, influence, and wealth when it comes to Inner North and Northeast Portland, and we will see this happen again if the City does not start a more inclusive focus to its urban planning.

I would love to answer any questions you may have.

Have a question for Fred? Email hello@theatlantic.com.