Survey of residents losing homes to gentrification
Two concerned Portlanders took some time today to interview residents affected by the planned demolition of the Rosefriend Apartment building next to the Park Blocks downtown, to find out their thoughts on the impending loss of their homes and the destruction of this historic Portland building.
Moved by reports of the impending loss of one of Portland's more attractive and historic older buildings in the heart of downtown, the present author and a friend decided today to take a totally informal canvas of residents of the Rosefriends (est. 1907) Apartment building to get their reactions to these events. Our motivation was to gauge the sentiment of residents and see if there was any opposition to developer plans.
A significant percentage of residents are low income and may qualify for some housing assistance, according to those we spoke with. So our concerns with the planned new development are double: Not only is Portland on the verge of losing an irreplaceable piece of its history, an important visual, aesthetic, and historical asset, but many lower income residents are faced with probable immediate hardship finding adequate replacement housing. In the longer term, we are concerned that the highrise condos that are slated to replace the Rosefriends building will be out of reach of most residents of our city and will exacerbate the ongoing scarcity of affordable housing.
Among the questions we asked residents were:
- When did you first find out you would lose your home here?
- Has the owner or anyone else offered you help finding a new place?
- How do you feel about the overall situation?
- Have you spoken with your neighbors or others about this?
- Have you or anyone else tried to organize any opposition to the developer plans?
From speaking with residents and our own informal survey of the place, it appeared that half the residents or so had probably already left. (Residents have been given the deadline of July 31st to move out.)
Most of the residents we spoke with had heard rumors around the end of last year that plans might be afoot to destroy the building, but these were just rumors. The residents we spoke with told us that the first formal notice from the building owners only came in May.
We were told that the property management were offering rent concessions to
those who stayed until the very end -- probably because they could scarcely find many new renters in the short time before the building is to be demolished anyway. Otherwise, residents had not been offered assistance.
All but one resident we spoke with was upset at the turn of events, but none of them had discussed the matter at any length with their neighbors. Nor were any aware of efforts afoot on the part of any residents or others to organize any opposition to developer plans.
One of the residents had approached the Portland Development Commission (PDC) to discuss the matter, but according to her, the owners of the building had rejected approaches by the PDC offering collaboration in their plans, for fear that accepting a role for PDC might create additional obligations on their part towards the existing residents.
Residents also echoed the sentiment that it was a shame to lose such an historic Portland architectural asset.
One of the residents said she felt "it was coming" for a long time, and had observed a gradual deterioration in maintenance of the building. She had also observed a gradual exodus of other residents from the building. (She declined to state whether she perceived any connection between these two trends.) She said she had been kicked out of other historic Portland buildings in the past under similar circumstances. She said she was not upset but resigned to the situation -- and besides, she said, she and her mate had enough assets to invest in their own home, so she was "happy at the outcome; it was good for [her]." She said she also felt she'd been treated "fairly" by the owners and had no hard feelings.
Residents estimated that the average length of occupancy in their building was 4-5 years.
One of the residents said she was herself an employee of a property management company and had observed the ongoing trend of more and more rental units being turned into condominiums. She herself was being forced to move into a much smaller place that would cost her more money. And because she doesn't own a car, moving far away out of the city center where costs might be lower was not a realistic option for her. She also said she thought that affordable housing programs left very large gaps: Many lower income people find themselves, like her, unable to afford condominiums, but also unable to qualify for Section 42, HUD, or other housing assistance programs. She felt that these programs failed to effectively serve the goal of preserving mixed income neighborhoods and affordable housing.
Our clear impression from the residents with whom we spoke was that they fit a stereotypical pattern of relatively short-term renters: There was little interaction among the residents. There were no regular meetings, for example. Few neighbors knew each other well or had any deep or lasting friendships with neighbors. None were aware of any efforts afoot to resist the course of events, even though all but one were unhappy about them.
Please note: We surveyed only a handful of residents, so all of our results here are purely anecdotal. With more time, a more systematic and scientific approach would be warranted. Therefore, our conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt.
After brainstorming about the situation at Rosefriends and its connection to larger patterns and issues of gentrification and historic preservation, we are inclined to believe that any effective initiative to address these problems will not come solely or even primarily from those who are immediately affected by them.
First of all, when people are faced with impending evictions, they have enough to deal with just having to organize immediate plans for their own personal lives.
Second of all, lower income people, renters, and shorter-term and more transitory groups of residents are unlikely to build strong enough foundations of community relationships between each other to organize successful struggles together by themselves. As in the case of the labor movement, dedicated organizers are required to plant the seeds for such efforts.
The time constraints in this situation play a role, too. For community efforts to be effective in addressing these issues, organizers need to know about these events long enough beforehand. Finding out a month or so before the wrecking ball swings makes it difficult to plan any action to stop the destruction.
One way that community organizing efforts could become more effective would be apublic notice law: If, let us say, a six month official public notice period were required under various triggering conditions (e.g., destruction of more than half of a building or eviction of more than half of its residents whenever that building is more than 50 years old), this could give the public enough time to learn about the situation, and to determine if intervention was needed to save vital historical assets and/or prevent the loss of vital affordable housing in the city.
One of the residents observed that, were the building officially designated with an historic status, it could not be destroyed without any public review. But with some kind of public notice law, at least there would be a way for affordable housing advocates, historic preservation activists, and others to learn in advance of situations like this and take meaningful steps to prevent senseless destruction of important but unprotected public resources.
The Rosefriends Building can be viewed as a posterchild for the twin movements for affordable housing/renter rights and historic preservation. It is a stately old building in one of the most prestigious parts of the city, adjacent to downtown's premier public space, the Park Blocks. It provides affordable housing to many lower income people. It is slated to be destroyed and replaced with a generic 21 story highrise condo complex. It is situated in a section of the city that is highly desirable and increasingly threatened with becoming an exclusive enclave of the very wealthy. And hardly anyone seems to have found out officially that this was going to occur until sometime last month.
We thought of many ideas for trying to save this historic place. These include approaching residents of the neighborhood, and encouraging them to participate in presentations before city council on this subject. Another group of stakeholders are the congregants of the church that owns the property. (Our information is that the church is using the development of the highrise complex to finance the contruction of additional parking for church congregants. But do all the congregants know that this will come at the cost of good, affordable housing for many lower income people, and the loss of an irreplaceable architectural jewel of our city? Would they feel differently about it if they did know?)
Finally, even if we are not able to stop the destruction of the building, whatever efforts we make in this situation now could still be useful in the future. If we document these events, and their sadness and senselessness, taking pictures of the building, and its destruction, and the feelings of neighbors and residents about this, this story could serve to mobilize people in the future.
Perhaps, out of this, we can mobilize people decisively in favor of public notice laws that would give us a fighting chance to change the course of events in similar instances in the future.
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