Gentrification: Can a St. Johns Housing Action Plan help?

Article by Barbara Quinn
Published in the St. Johns Review on April 21, 2017

Though the city and political leaders have talked about it for years very little has happened to address the rapid gentrification of our city and particularly in north Portland. Has the situation improved after past housing forums with political leaders? Not enough. This time I hope it will be different.

The recent eviction of residents at Titan Manor Apartments in St. Johns is testimony of the failure to address housing issues. According to some sources Portland hasn’t been able to slow its rental crisis because “in a city that prides itself on progressivism, many of the traditional tools used to create more affordability are off the table.” Until last year, the City did not require inclusionary zoning, which mandates that new buildings include a certain number of affordable units. There’s no rent control in Oregon, and efforts to ban no-cause eviction are currently being challenged at the city and state levels. The city has embarked on big urban-renewal projects in the past few decades without putting measures in place to ensure that tenants in those neighborhoods won’t be displaced (The Atlantic, Can Portland Avoid Repeating San Francisco's Mistakes, Semuels, 5/17/16). More than half of the city’s tenants spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. Rent increases can rise rapidly in some cases even doubling.

While St. Johns has the most diverse high school in the state, Roosevelt High, with close to 1/3 white, 1/3 Latino and 1/3 African American students, that diversity is currently being threatened by displacement due to the cost of housing. Diversity has been the heart and soul of our community, diversity of age, ethnicity, income, and faith.

The neighborhood is increasingly becoming white upper middle class like the rest of Portland because the free market is driving housing prices sky high in a traditionally affordable neighborhood. The free market, lest we forget, produced a San Francisco where houses' average cost is over 1 million dollars. Generally only wealthy, white people can live there. Is that where we want to go? Heck no, everyone says, but what are we doing to prevent it? Little to nothing. Apparently here in our city and in our state, the free housing market rules.
The Comprehensive Plan, in contrast, envisions the St. Johns neighborhood as a town center with diverse residents, where people are able to age in place. Yet, how can that happen if older residents can no longer afford property taxes? Or afford to stay in the neighborhood they love? Ethnic diversity? Forget it. The average Hispanic family can now only afford a 1-bd home here. Just ask the owner of Novedades Prado whose Hispanic customer base is eroding. They are fleeing the neighborhood. African Americans? They are also fleeing. We are becoming whiter and wealthier with each development.

The solutions implemented so far may have helped but have not had enough impact to change the gentrification process, aka the forced flight from the neighborhood due to the cost of housing.

April 10 St. Johns Forum to organize a Housing Action Plan
The housing forum on Monday, April 10 at the St. Johns Community Center was organized to address these serious issues. Its purpose was to get feedback in order to form a St. Johns Housing Action Plan. Sponsors were St. Johns Center for Opportunity, St. Johns Neighborhood Association and PSU Urban Planning students, who acted as facilitators. The organizers want to help neighbors preserve what makes our neighborhood unique.“St. Johns is like Mayberry,” the woman to my left said. But Mayberry never saw a housing boom like this.
There is strong support for diversity here, the facilitator said, but the success of a plan depends on interest from the community and its leaders.
I joined the break-out group that sounded most interesting: Creative Housing Solutions. Some suggestions from the group were: formation of land trusts and a local tenants' union, more affordable permitting and taxes for building accessory dwelling units (ADUs), and education of residents on what affordable housing should look like. Traditional houses and buildings could be preserved and remodeled into multiple housing units, no-cause evictions should be banned, (currently the ban is being challenged at the city level and discussed at the state level), and meetings could be convened with developers to find out how to give them incentive to support a housing plan. All this is good.
But the challenge lies ahead to keep the issue front and center and build productive partnerships to make a Housing Action Plan that makes a difference. There are good examples available. The neighborhood that's taken the most initiative on affordable housing has been Cully. Living Cully, a coalition, has been rushing to create affordability before prices spike. Living Cully is trying to 'move as much land and housing out of the system as possible into some kind of community-controlled model,' says representative Cameron Hetherington. Right now, about 14 percent of the land in Cully is shielded from the market in some way, to maintain affordability, twice as much land shielded from development than in the rest of the city, he says. It helps that land prices are still relatively low since it's an outlying neighborhood.
They’re also working with other community groups to ensure the city follows through on affordable-housing commitments in a way it didn’t in the past. The group Anti-Displacement PDX meets every other week and tries to make sure policies are in place to protect every neighborhood from the churn that the city experienced in the past.

“Our fate is bound up in the fate of our allies in north and northeast Portland,” Herrington said. “We have to be working together city-wide on the policy landscape and getting the right policies in place, really supporting each other in neighborhood-based fights in general” (Ibid.).
What must we do to preserve what is unique, what we like, the diversity, the traditional housing styles, and small town lifestyle in our neighborhood given that growth will occur? As always, we must fight back and refuse to accept half measures by our city and state leaders. You can get involved and keep updated at the St. Johns Center for Opportunity website. Or you can drop in the office at 8250 N. Lombard St. 

We need partnerships with other neighborhoods and groups who are forging ahead in this fight such as Living Cully and Anti-Displacement PDX. Gentrification hurts young students the most so we need partnerships with school advocates such as the Roosevelt Alumni Club and the PTAs. We have a right to determine what kind of neighborhood we live in and to demand of our political leaders support for our autonomy in achieving reasonable and affordable housing costs for all residents.