On Sunday, October 10 at 7:30pm, Prism Moves will host a pop-up comedy showcase. The line up features headliner Tory Ward, recently voted one of Portland’s funniest people by the Willamette Week, along with local comics Dylan Carlino, Julia Corral, and Marietje Hauprich. Host and organizer Danelle Porter put together the showcase to feature women, BIPOC, and LGBTIQIA+ comics in the Portland area, creating a far more diverse show than average.
Hey, Portland residents!
The Portland Charter Review Commission wants your comments on two topics:
● Portland’s form of government
● Portland’s elections system
As of the commission’s August update, fewer than 200 Portlanders have submitted public comments about the city charter. This is an opportunity to change the basics of how local government operates, so that’s not nearly enough comments!
If you’d like to submit a comment, but you’re not sure what you’d like to say or how to sign up, keep reading!
How to sign up to comment
The Charter Review Commission decided to focus first on Portland’s form of government and city council elections. They’re calling this “Phase I” of the review process. Other topics, such as redefining the role of the Portland Police Bureau or codifying new climate policies, may be covered during Phase II.
If you have thoughts on either the city’s form of government or city council elections, you can either submit comments in writing or sign up to speak at an upcoming meeting.
The next meeting where members of the public can give testimony is Thursday, September 23, from 6pm to 8pm. Additional meetings where you can speak include
● Thursday, October 28
● Tuesday, November 16
● Monday, December 13
To speak, you’ll need to sign up online. You must submit your comments by 8am two business days before the meeting. The deadline for the September 23 meeting is Tuesday, September 21 at 8am.
The signup form to speak is linked to at
The form asks for your name, email address, phone number, how you’ll join the meeting, accessibility requests, and the topic you wish to speak about. It also asks if you’re speaking on behalf of an organization. Don’t worry if you aren’t part of an organization, though — it’s not required in order to speak.
To submit written testimony, you can either email your comments to CharterReview2020@portlandoregon.gov or submit them through the form at https://www.portland.gov/omf/charter-review-commission/public-comment.
Ideas for what to talk about
There are lots of suggestions for ways the city could run elections or alternate forms of government we could use. Unless you’re a dedicated policy nerd, though, you might not feel comfortable talking about those topics.
Instead, focus on your experiences with the current city government and elections system. The more the Charter Review Commission understands how every resident of Portland is affected by these systems, the easier it is for them to make suggestions — and the harder it becomes for current elected officials who want to avoid making changes. Stay on topic as much as possible: verbal testimony is timed and off-topic comments may be set aside for Phase II.
Here are questions to think about when writing your testimony:
Do you feel like the city council and the mayor act in your best interest? Do they represent the communities you belong to?
The current city council is the most diverse city council Portland has ever seen. Jo Ann Hardesty is the first Black woman (and only the third Black city commissioner in Portland’s history). Carmen Rubio is the first ever Latinx commissioner in Portland. But the members of the city council still don’t really represent all the different communities in Portland.
Even with that newfound diversity, though, many Portland residents haven’t seen elected officials respond to our needs. Ted Wheeler, the mayor and self-appointed police commissioner, for instance, has done nothing to address police violence or reduce
homelessness. The city commission form of government makes it easy for Wheeler and his cronies to block effective change on the city level, even when other city commissioners call for that change.
Do you think that candidates for local political office should follow election laws?
Ted Wheeler violated campaign laws and the city auditor, Mary Hull Caballero, chose to ignore that violation. The laws dictating how candidates run for city office are easy to ignore, at least for candidates able to loan their own campaigns six figures at the drop of a hat.
Do you think candidates should be elected with fewer than 50% of votes?
We currently use a winner-take-all system of elections, which means that even if more than half of voters agree that a particular candidate is terrible, they all have to agree on an alternative to defeat that candidate. If you look at 2020’s mayoral election, the results are clear that nearly 60% of Portland voters didn’t want Ted Wheeler in office — but the system itself handed him a win.
Systems like ranked-choice voting could empower voters and improve the odds of electing candidates that at least half of the city can work with. If we’d adopted such a system before the 2020 election, we would absolutely have a different mayor.
How much power do you think the mayor or individual city commissioners should have?
The current commission system of government used in Portland was written into law in 1913 with the explicit intention of concentrating power in the hands of the mayor and just a few city commissioners at a time when only White men could vote (White women may have been able to vote on local issues due to a 1912 ballot initiative). The politicians in charge at that point could see change coming and wanted to ensure that they remained in power.
Over a hundred years later, that power remains in the hands of just a few people. Even the city auditor, who is theoretically in charge of enforcing election law and other oversight for Portland’s city government, has minimal power. The city auditor’s office only receives its budget with the city council’s approval, meaning that it can’t do anything that would irritate members of the city council.
How could the city work better for you?
Even if you aren’t interested in policy, consider what changes would be meaningful for you in your day-to-day life. Don’t hold back on opinions that you think might be too extreme. The charter review process needs to consider all its options, even options that seem radical.
And while the most radical comments may not lead to particularly radical changes, they do make the charter commission consider a wider variety of options, maybe even leading them to a more progressive set of solutions. Think of your public testimony as opening a negotiation: ask for everything you want so that you can compromise in a way that gets you everything you need.
Keep attention on the charter review process
Lastly, I want to note that we don’t know how this charter review will end. During past city charter reviews, reforms of the local system of government have been easily ignored by the city council, partially due to low engagement and attention from most Portland residents. And, personally, I’m having some difficulty believing in the power of the process itself right now (as well as in PDX’s city government). However, I believe when elected officials can sense the attention of their constituents, those officials are more motivated to take action.
There are few opportunities for residents of Portland to speak about our needs to people who have power to make change. Don’t let this opportunity pass by — and don’t let the city council ignore our needs.
● The Charter Review Commission
https://www.portland.gov/omf/charter-review-commission — The City of
Portland’s page for the charter review commission, including links to videos of past meetings
● The Charter Review Commission’s Phase I
https://www.portland.gov/omf/charter-review-commission/subcommittees-f orm-government-city-council-elections — The Charter Review Commission’s explanation of the phases of the review process
● The City that Works
https://lwvpdx.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/City-Gov-Report-LWV-Portl and-9-2019-Final.pdf — The League of Women Voters’ report on the city’s form of government, including a history of prior changes to Portland’s municipal government
● New Government for Today’s Portland
https://www.pdxcityclub.org/new-government/ — The Portland City Club’s report on the city’s form of government
● City commission government
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/City_commission_government — An article describing how city commission governments work
● Portland’s Form of Government Needs a Makeover
https://www.portlandmercury.com/blogtown/2019/02/11/25840232/hall-m onitor-out-with-the-old — An article on Portland’s commission government and its problems
● Frustrated by Portland Bureaucracy? Keep an Eye on the Charter Commission
https://www.portlandmercury.com/blogtown/2021/07/15/35096945/hall-m onitor-frustrated-by-portland-bureaucracy-keep-an-eye-on-the-charter-co mmission?cb=6424b09b832764d381f940cc9189271c — An article on bureaucratic issues the charter review commission is likely to cover
● Everything You Wanted to Know About Portland Charter Review But Were Afraid to Ask
https://www.sightline.org/2021/09/01/everything-you-wanted-to-know-abo ut-portland-charter-review-but-were-afraid-to-ask/ — An article covering the charter review process, including its history
● City finds Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler did not violate campaign finance limits
https://www.opb.org/article/2020/11/04/city-finds-portland-mayor-ted-whe eler-did-not-violate-campaign-finance-limits/ — An article covering Ted Wheeler’s campaign violations and their outcome
● Mayor’s proposed budget violates Charter, Auditor’s independence https://www.portlandoregon.gov/auditor/article/760627 — A memo from the office of the city auditor on violations of the city charter
● The City Auditor and City Council are at a Standoff on the City Hearings Office
https://www.wweek.com/news/2020/05/08/the-city-auditor-and-city-council -are-at-standoff-on-the-city-hearings-office/ — An article describing the disagreement over the independence of the city auditor from the city council
● The Portland City Charter https://www.portlandoregon.gov/citycode/28149 — The full city charter
● ORS 221.315 Enforcement of charter provisions and ordinances https://www.oregonlaws.org/ors/221.315 — The Oregon law which empowers cities to create charters
● Portland’s City Charter in 1910
https://www.google.com/books/edition/Charter_and_General_Ordinances_of _the_Ci/908-AAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=portland%20oregon%20city%2 0charter&pg=PA3&printsec=frontcover
Compiled by Thursday Bram. Please contact @ThursdayB on Twitter with comments, questions, and concerns. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. If you’re interested in using this information to create a more visually oriented explainer, please contact Thursday!
The City of Portland uses a foundational document, known as the City Charter, as a guide to how the city should be governed (similarly to the way the US relies on the Constitution). Portland’s charter requires that the document be reviewed and updated at least once per decade. It’s time for just such a review and the city is kicking off the process now.
The Charter Review Commission has an opportunity to examine the way the existing charter works, including how the government operates, how officials are elected, and how the government is structured. The commission determines its own scope and sets its own timeline. The City of Portland oversees the selection of 20 Portland residents to form the commission and has vocally committed to creating an inclusive commission that is representative of Portland’s demographics (as well as the city’s geography). Each city commissioner selects four Portland residents to serve, including the mayor, for a total of 20.
Due to COVID-19, the Charter Review Commission will meet virtually. Commission members will receive a stipend of $500 in place of childcare, food, and transportation they would have received under normal circumstances. Commission members should expect the process to last for 18 to 24 months.
Several key issues are expected to come up during the commission’s review process:
- Portland’s form of government: Portland is one of the few remaining cities using a commission-style government. Portland City Club published a report in 2019 (https://www.pdxcityclub.org/new-government/) on the inequities of commission-style governments and our need to adopt a more inclusive form of government. In the report, they directly connect the incredibly low numbers of women (9) and people of color (3) elected to the local use of a commission-based government. JoAnn Hardesty, elected in 2018, is the first woman of color to be elected to Portland’s city government.
- The City Auditor’s office: While Portland’s City Auditor is independently elected, the city charter grants control of the auditor’s budget to the city council, effectively allowing the city council to limit the power of the city auditor. Given that the auditor’s job is to examine the city council’s work and report back on the results to the people of Portland, the current city auditor, Mary Hull Caballero has concerns about that control. The city council asked that the Charter Review Commission examine the question.
- Policing and community safety: The city charter sets expectations for public safety and could be used as an avenue to address defunding police, as well as implementing new approaches to public safety in Portland.
- Election reform and security: As other cities have adopted ranked-choice voting and other reforms through ballot measures, the city charter review process offers an alternative opportunity to explore municipal election reform. Furthermore, during the primary, the incumbent mayor and police commissioner, Ted Wheeler, accepted donations significantly larger than those allowed by the city charter.
- Neighborhood associations: Portland’s neighborhood associations wield significant power and are primarily composed of affluent White home owners. The past few years have seen major critiques of these neighborhood associations as well as the Office of Community and Civic Life (formerly the Office of Neighborhood Involvement), which oversees the associations.
- Prosper Portland: Previously known as the Portland Development Corporation, Prosper Portland’s existence is based on the city charter. The organization is responsible for a variety of so-called “urban renewal” projects that have gutted Black communities and stolen Black wealth in Portland, as well as displacing other communities.
Critics of the charter review process do suggest that city commissioners can prevent meaningful action by the Charter Review Commission, because they can vote to block the commission’s recommendations from taking effect. During the last charter review, in 2011, the commission pushed for the adoption of a new form of city government, but were largely ignored by the then-mayor and city council. The Charter Review Commission can choose to send recommendations directly to voters, provided 75 percent or more of the commission members agree to do so.
While the Charter Review Commission’s power is limited, there are arguments for participating in the process: commission members are empowered to investigate the way the City of Portland conducts business, which could help all residents of Portland better understand whether elected officials truly are working on our behalf. The city council may feel more pressure to listen to residents during these times of heightened attention on police forces and governments. And if city commissioners don’t listen to the Charter Review Commission? Portlanders know how to throw a good protest.
- June 30, 2020 — Charter Review Commission Work Session -read notes from the work session here. (https://www.portland.gov/omf/charter-review-commission/events/2020/6/30/charter-review-commission-work-session)
- Fall 2020 — The City of Portland appoints Charter Review Commission members
- Winter 2020 — The Charter Review Commission develops a work plan, including community engagement strategy and procedures
- Early 2021 — The Charter Review Commission meets with community members to gather feedback.
- Late 2021 — The Charter Review Commission provides an initial report to the Portland City Council.
- January 2022 — The Charter Review Commission provides recommendations to the Portland City Council.
- Spring 2022 — The Charter Review Commission and the City of Portland determine if changes to the charter must be voted on as ballot measures before implementation.
- About the Charter Review Commission https://www.portland.gov/omf/charter-review-commission/about-charter-review-commission — The City of Portland’s brief description of the Charter Review Commission
- The City that Works https://lwvpdx.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/City-Gov-Report-LWV-Portland-9-2019-Final.pdf — The League of Women Voters’ report on the city’s form of government, including a history of prior changes to Portland’s municipal government
- New Government for Today’s Portland https://www.pdxcityclub.org/new-government/ — The Portland City Club’s report on the city’s form of government
- Should We Wait for the Charter Review Process to Work on Change? https://www.pdxcityclub.org/should-we-wait-for-the-charter-review-process-to-work-on-change/ — An article critiquing the Charter Review Commission
- In Their Own Words: Portland City Council Position 4 Candidates On The Issues https://www.opb.org/news/article/portland-city-council-candidates-issues-question-answers/ — A candidate interview from the 2020 primary, which includes different perspectives on the charter review process
- City commission government https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/City_commission_government — An article describing how city commission governments work
- Mayor’s proposed budget violates Charter, Auditor’s independence https://www.portlandoregon.gov/auditor/article/760627 — A memo from the office of the city auditor on violations of the city charter
- The City Auditor and City Council are at a Standoff on the City Hearings Office https://www.wweek.com/news/2020/05/08/the-city-auditor-and-city-council-are-at-standoff-on-the-city-hearings-office/ — An article describing the disagreement over the independence of the city auditor from the city council
- The Portland City Charter https://www.portlandoregon.gov/citycode/28149 — The full city charter
- ORS 221.315 Enforcement of charter provisions and ordinances https://www.oregonlaws.org/ors/221.315 — The Oregon law which empowers cities to create charters
- Portland’s City Charter in 1910 https://www.google.com/books/edition/Charter_and_General_Ordinances_of_the_Ci/908-AAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=portland%20oregon%20city%20charter&pg=PA3&printsec=frontcover
- Unionists appointed to City of Portland Charter Review panel https://nwlaborpress.org/2005/11-18-05PDX.html — An article describing the beginning of the 2007 charter review process
- Will Portland’s charter review lead to real change? https://www.oregonlive.com/news/oregonian/anna_griffin/2011/01/will_portlands_charter_review.html — An article describing the difficulties faced by the 2007 Charter Review Commission
- 2011 Charter Commission Process Q & A https://www.portlandonline.com/fritz/index.cfm?c=49205&a=330003 — A guide to the 2011 charter review process written at the beginning of that process
Compiled by Thursday Bram. Please contact @ThursdayB on Twitter with comments, questions, and concerns. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. If you’re interested in using this information to create a more visually-oriented explainer, please contact Thursday!
By Thursday Bram
Jessica Mehta, one of this year’s Open Signal fellows, is currently showing her work “emBODY poetry” at Open Signal. The show, which opened March 10, combines Mehta’s poetry with performance to examine body image and eating disorders.
Since Open Signal is currently closed due to coronavirus, check out this virtual tour of Jessica Mehta’s current exhibition.
The first iteration of the show opened in Washington D.C. last spring. In it, Mehta led attendees in painting words on the body of a nude model. Mehta chose a human body as a canvass as a conscious break from stereotypical sexualization in poetry.
For Mehta, “emBODY poetry” is just one work out of many that give audiences more ways to experience poetry. Her work, “Red/Act” uses virtual reality to create an immersive encounter with indigenous poetry. Mehta is the author of more than a dozen books. More information about her writing and art is available at jessicamehta.com.
Her fellowship with Open Signal isn’t the first time Mehta’s worked in Eliot. Her first job was with the African-American Health Coalition then located in the neighborhood. “The majority of my hours were spent in Eliot at one point.” Mehta, who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and was born in southern Oregon, draws deeply on her own experiences in her work. She says, “Space and place play a huge role in my work.”
Learn More: opensignalpdx.org/embodypoetry
Microcosm, a publisher and retailer located on North Williams, drew national attention last fall for their principled stance on working with companies with anti-union practices. Microcosm routinely uses Kickstarter’s crowdfunding platform to offer pre-orders on upcoming titles. Joe Biel, the founder of Microcosm, explained that the publisher “…uses Kickstarter to promote our books to new audiences who may never walk into a bookstore and discover them. Essentially, it widens the reach and hits a different readership that doesn’t compete with our regular retailers. We have used other platforms, but Kickstarter truly has the best politics, metrics, and success rate.” During a crowdfunding campaign last summer, Kickstarter’s leadership announced that they would not voluntarily recognize a union organized by their employees. In September, when Microcosm was running another crowdfunding campaign, Kickstarter’s leadership fired two employees who had been organizing the internal unionization effort.
For Biel, supporting unionization efforts is an obvious step, based on his own experiences: “My grandparents were immigrants who came to the U.S. in the 1890s and were able to establish what we saw as middle-class lifestyles as a result of unions. Obviously, economics are different today and even more in favor of the wealthy with a rapidly disappearing middle class.”
When Microcosm discovered that Kickstarter’s employees had asked for union recognition, their first step was to check with the union:
“We checked in with union organizers who told us to carry on and that they would let us know when different actions would be helpful.” Those actions included sharing an open letter to Kickstarter on Microcosm’s website and advocating for Kickstarter’s employees on other platforms.
Running a crowdfunding campaign on a platform undergoing such turmoil is not ideal. Perhaps more difficult, though, is deciding whether a refusal to recognize a union merits public response. Biel notes, “It’s hard to trust a company that doesn’t respect its own values and precedent. The vast majority of employees that we work with there are phenomenally smart and committed so it seems that there is a growing rift between management and the company itself.” Kickstarter’s CEO, Aziz Hasan, argued that unionization would inherently damage Kickstarter as a company, but that position is difficult to justify.
Objectively, unionized organizations tend to do better, both increasing earning capacity and improving employees’ lives: Unionized workers can be up to twice as
productive as their non-unionized workers, which should please most Microcosm Supports Kickstarter’s Union employers. Marginalized employees also see smaller wage gaps with unionized employers. Objectively, communities benefit when our local employers work with unions. Employees (who may both live and work in a given community) are better equipped to participate in the community, from both social and financial perspectives.
The process of organizing a new union, however, can be difficult. Many of the strikes we’ve seen recently, especially here in Portland, are the result of employers
refusing to recognize new unions.
Given that unions are good for the communities they serve, what are our responsibilities here in Eliot when we see efforts to unionize companies here in the neighborhood?
First, we have a responsibility to respect requests made by the union: just as Microcosm respected requests by Kickstarter United to continue using the crowdfunding
platform as discussions with management continued, we should follow the lead of the people actually doing the organizing. Sometimes, that may mean respecting a strike
and changing your spending habits to avoid an organization that won’t work with its own employees. Sometimes, that may mean continuing to work with the company in
question while reminding them you that you support their union. Support can look different depending on the organizations involved.
Second, we have an obligation to stay informed about organizing efforts both here and elsewhere. Portland saw numerous union actions in 2019, only a few of which were covered by most of Portland’s media. Fred Meyer’s union went on strike, as did Burgerville. Employees at companies like Little Big Burger and Grand Central Bakery organized and asked for official recognition. Nationwide strikes, like that of Instacart workers in November, also impacted Portlanders. Staying informed can be tough but a few local organizations offer good reporting on labor news: KBOO and NW Labor Press. Microcosm also has several publications that are relevant reading: How to Boycott shares the history of American unions, while Labor Law for the Rank and Filer highlights the rights each employee has.
This is an issue that will continue to impact the Eliot community throughout 2020. There’s at least one company serving the neighborhood whose employees have asked to form a union: New Seasons. While New Seasons’ website states the company is not antiunion, it has opposed internal efforts to unionize. In October, New Seasons Workers United shared that the National Labor Relations Board had ruled that New Seasons’ managers were required to post reminders that unionizing is legal and that employees would not face repercussions for joining a union.
Diesel particulates are a problem in the Eliot neighborhood. There are several organizations, both inside and outside of the neighborhood working to change legislation and business practices, including the Eliot Neighborhood Association’s eACT group and Portland Clean Air. While activists are working to limit pollution in the future, we need to reduce the impact of diesel particulates we currently face to the greatest extent possible. Because Portland Public Schools commissioned research into the air quality at Harriet Tubman, we have data on what sort of changes can make a difference in the air we breathe here in Eliot, especially indoors. Harriet Tubman Middle School relies on an $18 million air filtration system. Most Eliot neighbors aren’t in a position to spend millions of dollars on air filtration systems, but there are air filtering options available at a variety of price points.
Adding an additional filter or two to your home can make sense, but there are several factors to consider. Not all air filtration systems are capable of catching diesel particulates. Air filters are graded the MERV (minimum efficiency reporting value) scale, which runs from 1 to 20. MERV ratings are based on the size of the particles that can pass through the filter, with a filter with a rating of 1 stopping relatively large particles like pollen or spray paint dust and a filter with a rating of 20 stopping viruses and smoke particles. Filters rated MERV 16 or higher are typically needed to stop diesel particulates. MERV-rated filters may also be HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters. HEPA filters must pass a test on their ability to stop particles the size of bacteria and paint pigments, corresponding roughly to a MERV rating of 16. That’s also about the size of the diesel particulates we’re trying to stop.
If you have an existing HVAC or furnace system with a built-in filter, make sure you replace filters regularly, as well as clean any prefilter system. They’ll help improve air quality, although they may not be entirely effective on diesel particulates. Many residential systems aren’t equipped to use filters with a MERV above 10, though some homeowners choose to use filters with higher MERV ratings with minimal issues.
Consider adding a portable air filter to your space. The most effective air filters, like the Coway AP1512HH Mighty and the Austin Air HealthMate HM400, range from $125 to $600. There are options at every price point, however: you can even build your own air filter with a box fan and two replacement filters. Popular Mechanics provides a tutorial at https://bit.ly/2Ldtmt1.
Limiting time spent outdoors can be helpful, especially for folks closer to the interstate. For those with health concerns, using a respirator mask (look for an N95 or a P2 rating) will limit exposure to diesel particulates while outside. Increasing the greenery within Eliot is one of the most effective options we have. In the PSU study on Harriet Tubman’s air quality, researchers recommended increasing vegetation around the school by 50 percent. (The full report is available as a PDF at https://bit.ly/2Y6gBG8.) A similar increase throughout the neighborhood could help reduce diesel particulates somewhat.
Plants can help mitigate pollution in the air, without the replacement costs that go along with filters. Trees are particularly helpful — and organizations like Friends of Trees make the process of planting trees simple. Certain plants are especially effective at filtering air indoors: during a NASA study on which plants filtered air most effectively, these plants removed the most particulates from the air.
English ivy (Hedera helix)
Green Spider plant (Chlorophytum elatum)
Peace lily (Spathiphyllum ‘Mauna Loa’)
Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema modestum)
Bamboo palm (Chamaedorea seifrizii)
Variegated snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata ‘Laurentii’)
Heartleaf philodendron (Philodendron cordatum)
Selloum philodendron (Philodendron bipinnatifidum)
Elephant ear philodendron (Philodendron domesticum)
Red-edged dracaena (Dracaena marginata)
Cornstalk dracaena (Dracaena fragrans ‘Massangeana’)
Weeping fig (Ficus benjamina)
Barberton daisy (Gerbera jamesonii)
Florist’s chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum morifolium)
Aloe vera (Aloe vera)
Janet Craig (Dracaena deremensis “Janet Craig”)
Warneckei (Dracaena deremensis “Warneckei”)
Banana (Musa oriana)
Consider adding a few of these plants to your home — NASA suggests adding one plant per 100 square feet.
We may not be able to stop diesel particulates overnight, but we can lessen the impact they have on our community.
By Thursday Bram
Unreinforced masonry buildings (URMs) have been the subject of multiple laws and lawsuits in Portland since 1995. As of June 1st, it’s unclear how the city of Portland will work to reduce the current number of URMs, even as renovating URMs becomes more urgent.
URMs are subject to such discussion in Portland because they’re considered particularly risky during an earthquake. These buildings are all older, dating to between 1870 and 1960, and were built using bricks and mortar. In URMs, brick-and-mortar walls are not directly attached to roofs and foundations. During earthquakes, the walls are significantly more likely to crack or crumble than those built to modern seismic safety standards. These buildings can be updated by reinforcing parapets, bolting walls to floors, and bracing the building with steel beams.
Currently, remodeling a substantial portion of a building must also include bringing the property into compliance with current building codes. Increasing a building’s occupancy or changing a building’s use also requires upgrading seismic safety to modern standards. That requirement, combined with demolition for redevelopment, has been somewhat effective in reducing the number of URMs still standing in Portland. About 8 percent of URM buildings standing in 1995 (when that requirement was enacted) have been demolished, another 5 percent have been fully upgraded, and 9 percent have been partially upgraded.
An inventory was taken in 1996 and updated again in 2016 lists 1,600 such buildings, around 40 of which are in the Eliot neighborhood. That list does not include houses, but it does include apartment buildings. The Portland Bureau of Emergency Response estimates 7,000 households in Portland live in multi-family URM buildings. It’s difficult to give an exact count of buildings inside our neighborhood because there’s no easy way for owners to get their buildings removed from the list after they’ve made upgrades. The inventory is also known to be inaccurate at this time and there’s currently no set process for updating listings with new information.
Last year, Portland’s city commissioners passed an ordinance requiring owners of URMs post placards discussing earthquake dangers. That ordinance was scheduled to take effect on June 1st, but Judge John Acosta blocked the ordinance indefinitely on May 30th as part of a lawsuit brought by building owners in Portland. The injunction is based on a question of freedom of speech, but it’s also a questionable strategy when it comes to guaranteeing public safety. The placards, which read “This is an unreinforced masonry building. Unreinforced masonry buildings may be unsafe in the event of a major earthquake,” don’t provide any actions that people inside URMs can take in the event of an earthquake. That’s because there’s nothing different about what an individual should do in the event of that type of natural disaster: no matter what type of building you’re in during an earthquake, the only safe response is to shelter in place. If you can, take shelter under heavy furniture, like desks or tables, and wait it out.
Placarding has proven particularly problematic in Portland: multiple churches with predominantly Black congregations are on the list. It disproportionately affects organizations and individuals least likely to be able to retrofit, therefore reinforcing the impact of red-lining and gentrification in our neighborhoods. There’s an additional concern that placarding or requiring retrofitting could worsen gentrification: if small business owners or single property owners can’t afford to retrofit, their properties are more likely to wind up in the hands of developers, which leads to demolition rather than remodelers. The Eliot neighborhood is particularly susceptible to these buyouts due to our location.
The city of Portland has also failed to effectively work with these communities: Rev. E.D. Mondainé, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Portland chapter, reported that he and other pastors never received proper notification from the city that their churches were included in the URM inventory. In a letter to the city, Mondainé wrote, “Let it be established that the African American community has no desire to be noncompliant. It is, however, of critical concern of the NAACP Portland Branch, that Oregon’s documented history of excluding the African American community from the decision making processes, appears to be rearing its unsightly head once again.”
Other cities have used strategies other than placarding to improve safety in URMs, with much better results. A 2004 study established that placarding was one of the least successful approaches for Californian municipalities, while programs offering financial tools to building owners to mitigate the cost of seismic upgrades were the most effective. In Berkley, there are only 6 URMs left out of 587 identified in the mid-90s. The rest have been updated or demolished, substantially improving the city’s earthquake resiliency. Berkley’s secret sauce? The city provided financial grants to help building owners make upgrades. The city of Portland’s own URM working group recommended creating property tax exemptions to help property owners afford seismic improvements in 2015, along with other financial aid. However, that aid has yet to materialize.
Some of these funding options might be particularly useful in Eliot. While grants are ideal, a revolving loan fund could provide financial assistance faster than lobbying the state of Oregon to create a seismic retrofit tax credit. Proposals to use urban renewal area funds or to create economic development zones, in comparison, have the potential to add to the on-going gentrification in Eliot, rather than helping neighborhood residents who are already here.
Several of our neighborhood landmarks were built with unreinforced masonry walls. Given the age of most URMs, many are eligible for historic status, which can further complicate the upgrade process. Around a third of Portland’s URMs are already on the National Register of Historic Places or are contributing structures in a designated National Historic District or Conservation District. There are some benefits to such status, including an existing federal tax credit for these types of upgrades. Eliot has also been a historical conservation district since 1992, which allows for more changes than listing on the National Register of Historic Places does, but still places some limits on changes to the neighborhood’s appearance.
Also concerning are the number of schools, community centers, and other important public spaces on the list. Boise-Eliot/Humboldt Elementary School and Harriet Tubman Middle School are not on that list, but Jefferson High School is, as is Matt Dishman Community Center. We can expect to see bond issues on our ballots for years to come as Portland Public Schools works to upgrade each school to meet minimum seismic safety requirements.
The URM debate in Portland is not over yet. The city of Portland has the option of fighting the lawsuit brought by building owners, it could choose to amend the placarding ordinance in order to address legal concerns, or it can choose to focus on other (potentially more effective) strategies to mitigate the risks presented by URMs. The city of Portland is currently looking for volunteers to join its URM working group. (https://www.portlandoregon.gov/civic/article/712316) Anyone who lives, works, worships, or does business in Portland is eligible to join the URM working group.
If you live or work in the Eliot neighborhood, you should consider preparing for emergencies that can affect the neighborhood. The biggest risks for the area are earthquakes and pollution, both of which you can take easy steps to prepare for. Eliot also has some neighborhood-specific emergency resources worth knowing about.