Origin of Gentrification in Eliot

Board Co-Chair Wilson’s heartfelt article in the last issue encouraged me to provide more perspective on his, and our neighborhood’s, experience with gentrification.  Docks, railyards, and industries in Lower Eliot (now Lower Albina) provided jobs and Upper Albina (now Eliot’s residential area) provided housing for successions of groups seeking either, or both, refuge and a better life.  The last wave was former, mostly black, shipyard workers fleeing the Vanport flood, many of whom were welcomed into the homes of former co-workers living in N/NE Portland.  The lack of jobs and redlining stranded many of these in crowded, dilapidated homes.  These conditions were a good fit for City leaders to looking for ways to stimulate economic development through “urban renewal.”  The resulting renewal efforts and their impacts are well known; the Rose Quarter, PPS’s Blanchard Building, and Emanuel Hospital expansion.  What is less recognized is the role Portland’s comprehensive planning and zoning practices played in facilitating gentrification. 

State land use practice is controlled by Senate Bill 100 adopted in 1973 that was designed to slow urban sprawl.  SB 100 required each county to develop, implement, and maintain plans and associated zoning that accommodates expected economic and population growth within an urban growth boundary (UGB).  Industrial and residential development outside the UGB is severely limited.  The expectation then, and now, is that future growth within the UGB will require increased density; smaller lots, multi-family buildings, and in-fill development. 

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Portland’s housing was predominately single-family, owner-occupied (roughly 65%) with the balance rental homes and apartments.  The situation in Eliot was exactly the opposite; 65% rental and 35% resident-owned but in mostly single-family homes.  Our population was equally distinct being one of the City’s most diverse and poorest.  Although counties adopted land use plans based on long-range projections of population and economic growth, there was little of either during Oregon’s recession of the 1980s.  The metro region’s population projection at the end of the recession was for an additional 1 million residents by 2040, of which Portland agreed to house at least half.  To do so, it needed to change land use plans and zoning to squeeze those people into existing neighborhoods.  Neighborhoods with a majority of homeowners naturally opposed any density increases in their neighborhoods.  Consequently, City staff looked for poor, less well connected and organized neighborhoods to dump that density.  Eliot loomed large as a target. 

Controversy over the plan to dump density in inner N/NE neighborhoods forced the City to couch this change in the Albina Community Plan, adopted in 1993.  The Plan paid lip service to the preservation of existing historic and affordable housing stock: however, the Housing Goal was to add 3,000 housing units by “increasing density … and increasing infill,” which it did by rezoning single-family lots for multifamily development.  The Plan suggested new units would be constructed on vacant and under-developed lots; however, many of those lots were (and still are) vacant because of pollution and ownership questions making it impractical to repurpose them.  Rezoning a home for potential multifamily use makes it more difficult to get a mortgage to purchase or rehabilitate a single-family home.  As a result, the Albina Plan laid the foundation for gentrification through the conversion of older, but affordable, single-family homes to multifamily developments including townhomes and apartments, and a few McMansions. 

The Plan also included an infill overlay to facilitate “granny flats,” which enabled two dwelling units on one, single-family home site.  This encouraged the further loss of single-family homes and an increase in rental apartments.  The Albina Plan was superseded by the new NE Quadrant Plan within the new Comprehensive Plan in 2016.  Active engagement by the Eliot Neighborhood Land Use Committee resulted in zoning changes that concentrate increased density along Broadway, MLK, and Williams/Vancouver along with changes to residential zoning.  This was intended to reduce pressure to demolish Eliot’s remaining, older homes.  Unfortunately, after the plan was adopted the City changed the definitions of the new residential zones increasing pressure to convert lots with single-family lots into multifamily developments.  In these days of heightened awareness of racial bias in institutional decisions, it is easy to conclude the zoning changes in Eliot were at least tainted by racism.  That is difficult to conclude because the changes hide behind “policies” rather than individual decisions.  Nevertheless, it is obvious white and wealthy neighborhoods avoided density dumping.  Regardless, the City continues to assign blame for gentrification to the developers it enabled rather than acknowledging its role in that process.  At a minimum, this reflects the City’s racial tone-deafness.  One recent example of this is its “right to return” program that encouraged black residents to return to city-supported housing in Eliot.  As several black leaders pointed out, this reinforces the public perception that Portland’s black population “belongs” in inner N/NE rather than in other, whiter neighborhoods.  Another example is the proposal to put “lids” over the expanded I-5 freeway to “reconnect” the neighborhood.  This ignores both the history of that area and its geography.  I-5 in Eliot wasn’t carved out of a former residential area, it is below a bluff that is part of the Willamette River flood plain.  In fact, as designed, the lid in Eliot will be primarily an overpass that is designed to connect truck traffic between Lower Albina and our residential areas via Hancock.  In other words, it is a benefit for the trucking industry (as is the widening project itself) not the Eliot neighborhood or its residents, past or present.  Hopefully, a new Council and the new racial awareness will finally result in policies that do not continue policies harming our community, starting with stopping the I-5 freeway expansion and, ideally, attacking vehicle pollution from the freeway and the rail and trucking industries in Lower Albina.

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