It is sidewalk repair time in Portland, and in a City known for its progressive self-consciousness, the sidewalk code is being enforced in a surprisingly indiscriminant [sic] manner. For residents just beginning to recover from the recession, the impact on low-income homeowners is a disproportionate and dangerous burden, and very un-Portland indeed.
As a low-income young family trying to keep an aging Portland home from falling into the ground, we were at least relieved that the 100-year-old sidewalk in front of our house was in good condition. That is why we, like many people in our Montavilla neighborhood, were surprised to receive a sidewalk repair notice from the city.
Inspectors had found minor code breaches, not in the sidewalk itself, but in the island, driveway approach, and 1 foot right of way between our house and the sidewalk, and the city would charge us $1800 to make the repairs if we didn’t make them ourselves within 60 days.
We have a one-year-old baby and have been struggling with underemployment for three years. When you are receiving government assistance, such as food stamps, your monthly allowances are calculated to the penny based on your mortgage payment and utilities – any increase in income results in a decrease in benefits. Sidewalk repairs are not part of that calculation, so an expense like that directly affects your ability to pay your bills.
I called the city sidewalk maintenance department to find out what kind of assistance they offered low income families (this is Portland after all, we are blessed to receive discounts on our water and power bills). The answer surprised me: all they could offer me was a payment plan, and I would have to pay for a permit to do work in the public right of way. By this time I was in tears, all these years we had barely managed to hold onto our house and now we seemed on the verge of losing it over a sidewalk.
Luckily for us, my husband, who had never worked with concrete before, was able to rent a jackhammer, learn how to pour a concrete driveway, and complete the work himself for a fraction of the cost. We still had to put off much-needed repairs to our car and house.
There are now sidewalk barricades up all around our neighborhood. In fact, most of the sidewalks are unusable; kind of ironic if you are a handicapped person trying to make it to the bus stop. Some places were truly dangerous, but many more were like our sidewalk—perfectly safe and usable. I worry about elderly people, single moms, and other homeowners on fixed incomes who may not be able to make the repairs the city demands and therefore end up saddled with another monthly bill—possibly one too many.
Unquestionably, walkability is an essential component of Portland neighborhoods, but there are many things the City could do to ease the disproportionate impact of sidewalk repairs on low-income homeowners (not to mention other unintended impacts, such as driving up the cost of hiring a contractor and shutting down too many neighborhood sidewalks at once). Prioritizing truly dangerous repairs over minor fixes, giving a much longer window to allow homeowners to save up for repairs, waiving the fee for the city permit to work in the public right of way, and setting up an assistance program for low income residents, for example.
As Portland becomes more prosperous, the City should be looking for ways to keep their low-income population and maintain the diversity that makes the community strong. A sidewalk repair notice should not become a get out of town notice for the poor.
SE Portland homeowner