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Changing neighborhoods fight for balance

Planners try to buck trend as urban diversity diminishes


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO BY JAIME VALDEZ - Kevin LaRocca, who has lived in North Portland for two years, steps off a light-rail train near the Killingsworth station. A recent Metro audit supports allegations that city development policies contributed to the gentrification of North Portland.

The audit found the population within a quarter mile of the Killingsworth MAX station on North Interstate Avenue has changed substantially since the light-rail line was built in 2004 — encouraged by city urban renewal policies that supported the line and new nearby developments.

Seventy-one percent of area residents moved there since the line was built, according to a mail survey of area residents conducted for the audit. Of those who regularly ride MAX, 65 percent said they moved there because of the line.

As the new residents moved in, the demographics of the area changed. The audit says it became less diverse in age, race and ethnicity. Ninety percent of those responding to the survey said they were white. Only 6 percent described themselves as black or African-American. That’s a dramatic change from the history of the area.

The income and education levels also increased. According to the U.S. Census data, median household incomes in the Killingsworth area increased from $38,983 in 2000 to $50,083 in 2012. Forty-five percent of area residents now have at least a bachelor’s degree, a 19 percentage point increase since 2000.

The Portland Development Commission has defined gentrification as “the process whereby middle- and upper-class households move into and rehabilitate historically low-income neighborhoods.”

In a 2002 paper on economic revitalization in North and Northeast Portland, the city’s urban renewal agency said gentrification can benefit existing residents by increasing home values and services. The paper also said gentrification has negative effects, however.

“But, the dark side of gentrification is the resulting involuntary displacement which takes a number of forms. In Portland, the impacts are felt most heavily by low-income renters. Homes that were once rented are sold to purchasers who plan on living in the home, displacing the former tenants. New people coming into the neighborhood are willing to pay greater amounts for the homes, rents increase displacing those unable to bear the increase. Residents are forced to look elsewhere for housing they can afford,” the paper said.

Despite the downside, the City Council approved the creation of an Urban Renewal Agency along Interstate to help fund the MAX line and support new mixed-used developments at many of the stations, including Killingsworth.

The Metro audit found that $28 million in public funds have been invested in the area around the Killingsworth MAX station since 2005. But by then, gentrification may have forced many previous residents out of the area, the audit says.

“The investments reflected the community’s vision for Killingsworth, but those who lived in the area at that time may not have stayed in the neighborhood to enjoy the benefits, including proximity to the MAX line,” reads the audit, which was released in June.

The audit, “Tracking Transportation Project Outcomes,” was not focused on gentrification. It compared the area around three MAX stations in the region to determine how public policies and funding influenced ridership after they opened. The other two stations were at East 162nd Avenue and Burnside in Portland, and at South Eighth Avenue near Tuality Hospital in Hillsboro.

The residential survey was conducted from July 11 to Aug. 11, 2012. Postcards with questions were mailed to residential addresses within one-quarter mile of all three stations announcing the survey and explaining how to take it. The surveys were available both online and in hard-copy formats. During the survey period, staff from the Metro Audit’s Office went door-to-door, distributed fliers, and attended community events to encourage people to respond. As an incentive, respondents could enter a drawing for a $50 gift card.

Surveys were completed by 156 Killingsworth residents, 120 of whom said they had used MAX in the previous month.

Historic fabric changing

Portland has witnessed a large-scale displacement of African-American residents from their longstanding base in inner North and Northeast neighborhoods. As the city grows and remains a magnet for educated twentysomethings, city planners hope to avoid more displacement of longtime residents and merchants.

The release of the audit coincides with the release of a study by the city Bureau of Planning & Sustainability on how to reduce gentrification in the future. Conducted by Portland State University Urban Studies Professor Lisa Bates, it maps out vulnerable neighborhoods and suggests possible remedies.

Addressing gentrification will remain a daunting challenge, says Tom Armstrong, supervising planner. But now “we have a better handle on the when and where” it will occur, Armstrong says.

Bates mapped the city, using Census data, to identify areas of highest risk for gentrification. Usually those are lower-priced neighborhoods located near areas that are seeing home prices spike, Armstrong says.

The map identifies areas of inner Southeast, Northeast and North Portland where gentrification already has taken place or is under way.

The report suggests the city may be most effective at addressing areas that show warning signs of future displacement, such as areas south of Powell or east of Mount Tabor.

One key finding is that most of Portland east of Interstate 205, while home to an increasing number of low-income and minority residents, faces little gentrification pressure.

It’s “probably not a short-term worry there,” Armstrong says. “What this is telling us is that we need to make more investments in community improvements in East Portland without worrying about gentrification.”

Planners vowed to address gentrification while drafting the Portland Plan, a comprehensive roadmap for future changes in the city. The issue also came up when the city made a concentrated effort to improve the Cully neighborhood in Northeast Portland, a long-neglected part of town with a diverse ethnic population, mostly homeowners.

“The challenge with all of this is how to balance neighborhood improvements and community revitalization,” Armstrong says. “By virtue of making those investments, they become more attractive places to live.”

As neighborhoods improve and experience an influx of newcomers, there can be a “second wave” of change, when longstanding residents sense the neighborhood is no longer right for them. “It’s changed so much, it no longer meets their needs,” Armstrong says.

The same can be true of local institutions and shops.

Few cities around the country have managed to stem gentrification, which is often governed by market forces beyond a city’s control.

For example, some of the recent displacement of African-Americans in Portland stemmed from a surge in predatory mortgage lending in the early-2000s. When the housing bubble burst, a disproportionate number of African-Americans were unable to pay spiking interest rates on their loans and faced foreclosure.

Countering trend

Bates’ 95-page report, commissioned for an estimated $13,000, includes a laundry list of ideas to counter gentrification.

In general, the report suggests the city view many of its improvement projects through a “racial/ethnic equity lens.”

The report suggests the use of community impact reports, which assess how a big project might change an area.

Inclusionary zoning, which requires developers to build a variety of housing for different income groups, is another oft-suggested remedy to combat gentrification. However, Oregon statutes now ban inclusionary zoning.

The city also might use education campaigns and technical assistance. Armstrong likens it to the city’s green building efforts, which were initiated by the city but became widely adopted in the private sector.

One of the things the city hopes to avoid is what has occurred in large swaths of San Francisco and other cities, where residential areas are made up of high-income or low-income residents, with little in-between. The city wants to retain mixed-income neighborhoods.

In many respects, it’s an uphill battle. New York City has observed what some call the “Friends” or “Sex in the City” phenomenon, where images from popular television shows cause a major influx and changing complexion of a neighborhood.

In Portland, Bates’ report notes, that may be occurring in part due to IFC’s wacky take

on the city in the TV show “Portlandia.”