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.