By Midge Pierce
A potentially powerful alignment of diverse interests has coalesced to oppose City requirements that unreinforced masonry (URM) buildings post placards warning of possible collapse in the Big One.
Backlash that the policy hurts the very residents City Commissioners aim to help has shifted perceptions of the city’s vaunted equity lens among low income renters, minorities and business owners who feel unfairly singled out.
Signage supporters say placards provide essential earthquake safety information. No one disputes the need for sound, earthquake resistant structures, but, without financial help for seismic retrofits, opposing interests call the situation inequitable.
NAACP Portland Chapter President E.D. Mondaine claims placarding will cause displacement of people of color and perpetuate gentrification. At a City Hall rally last month, he blasted the URM policy as yet another form of discrimination against minorities. He called on the City to engage everyone impacted by the policy and pressed for practical time frames and “robust, accessible financial assistance.”
The extraordinary mix of commercial interests with minorities, musicians, artists, tenant advocates, preservationists and the newly-formed Coalition to Prioritize, Protect and Preserve Affordable Housing, stood firm in what the latter termed “solidarity against a land grab gold rush that threatens Portland’s racial fabric and character”.
One by one, speakers acknowledged that while seismic safety is critical, the placarding process is selectively punitive, exacerbated by improper process, notification and issuance of a “contract” they contend the City requires that affixes URM identification to titles and deeds.
Building owners call it an encumbrance tantamount to a “lien” – a description the City denies.
The City indicates it will lobby the state for grants or loans to help with the cost of stabilizing some 1600 buildings. The price-tag could top a billion dollars, a cost critics fear speculators will exploit with cash buys of distressed property followed by displacement and demolition.
Commercial building owners in SE are watchful. The Buckman neighborhood alone has one hundred URMS; and forty-two are identified along Hawthorne Blvd.
Save Portland Buildings founder Angie Even says the value of her Woodstock property has plummeted making seismic retrofit impossible.
“We can’t get loans or refinancing. The City has said if you can’t afford to fix your building, you have to sell or demolish. That means I would have to kick everyone out. On one side, (the city) said it would help with incremental retrofits. On the other, you can’t clear title.”
Warning of “blight and zombie” buildings, Even calls the policy regressive redlining that hits the poor and vulnerable hardest. She warns that it will shrink Portland’s last stronghold of affordable rentals.
Her concerns were echoed by a housing provider who says at risk youth would be forced back to the streets.
Hawthorne Boulevard Business Association’s Julia Hanfling says it is “unconscionable” that the City’s Main Street commercial corridors risk demolition due to loss of market value, insurance and funding options. “Our very sense of place is under siege.”
Railton family members, owners of a 1930s-style masonry building, say that even if financing was available, the City has not specified retrofit standards.
“We could do the work and be out the money without knowing what the City actually wants.”
Systems engineer and lifetime renter M.K. Hanson calls the URM policy “disaster capitalism” that amounts to a hostile Wall Street takeover. She says the City’s “stealth deed restriction” broke promises to the African American Community and points to many URMS in so-called Opportunity Zones where developers get tax breaks for new construction.
Hanson cited a recent Bloomberg News report about Portland doubling down on development opportunities that she calls “predatory Ponzi” schemes.
“Buckle up folks,” she warned, “Everything is for sale, everything that’s old isn’t producing wealth for Wall Street and has a target on its back. There’s gold underneath the dirt of our historic brick buildings, there’s gold underneath cheap rental housing…Bloomberg just put Portland on blast.”
Whether URM unleashes unintended consequences or deliberate opportunism, the issue is – like Infill and rent control – dividing the city, raising distrust and prompting unusual alliances to form.