No, Portland’s Neighborhood Associations Aren’t Going Away — And They Might Not Even Change

A proposed revision to the City of Portland’s civic code is either a bureaucratic tweak to bring more voices to the table, or it’s a Machiavellian power grab to silence critics and stifle democracy. It just depends who you ask. 

Confused? 

You’re not alone. The messaging from City Hall has been inconsistent at times, and even the news media has struggled to explain what the code changes actually do — other than make neighborhood associations really mad

To sort things out, I turned to the collective wisdom of social media for insights. Here’s what I learned:

Note: Many of these messages were shared in a closed Facebook Group, so I’ve cited those people by their initials to honor their privacy. The one exception I made is for Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, because she’s a public official. 

First things first: Why does the city’s Office of Community and Civic Life want to remove neighborhood associations from its official code? Here’s Commissioner Eudaly’s take…

Chloe Eudaly: Generally speaking, NAs are not representative of our population and leadership, and membership skews toward white, middle-class homeowners. 

I recognize NAs as a legitimate and useful way for community members to organize — NAs have and will continue to make valuable contributions to our city — but they are not the only way to organize and it is vitally important for the bureau charged with public involvement to recognize that. 

The general population struggles to understand the unique needs and challenges of underserved and marginalized communities. We can’t force NAs to diversify — they are independent entities that we don’t control — but we can invite other voices to the table and that’s what we’re doing through the code change.

It’s worth noting that some people of color have opposed the code changes and argued that NAs are more diverse than they’re given credit for. But most commenters — and even some supporters of NAs — seem to agree that NAs usually don’t reflect the communities they claim to represent.

SE: In my neighborhood, it feels like the neighborhood association is not the voice of the community or the people in our neighborhood, but rather the voice of the homeowners who are hellbent on preventing any and all changes to their perfect urban suburban neighborhood.

KL: I am thrilled for this new direction to make sure ALL voices are heard! I live in a neighborhood that is 70% renters, yet the neighborhood board is made up 95% single family homeowners, most of them older white men. To make room for different groups to get a piece of the funding and recognition pie is fabulous, in my book.

Of course, neighborhood association meetings are technically open to everyone, so renters, young people, etc. could theoretically just start showing up. But as SG explains, there are reasons why that doesn’t happen in practice. 

SG: I have been part of two neighborhood associations and both have been stacked with leadership of older white homeowners, operate within systems like Robert’s Rules of Order, and give entirely too much time to discussions of parking. I didn’t feel comfortable being in a meeting with police officers being invited, or being tokenized as a young person. 

Neighborhood associations claim they are welcome to all, but many do not have the capacity, awareness or desire to interrogate aspects of white supremacy culture which make them so uncomfortable or uninteresting to people who don’t participate. 

By now perhaps you’re thinking “OK, neighborhood associations might have problems, but if the city wants to ‘invite other voices to the table,’ why doesn’t it just write more community groups into its code, instead of taking NAs out of the code?” After all, that’s what many NA members say they want…

GL: I am sad that this new leadership wants to throw the baby out with the bath water. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, we need to offer tools and support to do the outreach and inclusivity. As a member of neighborhood associations, I know how hard it is to try to bring folks in and get participation. Very sad to see this.

Counterpoint: It’s not the city’s job to regulate how volunteer community groups run their meetings or do their work. If neighborhood associations want to make an effort to become more diverse and representative, they can do that. But it’s not the city’s business. 

Michael Andersen: These organizations are often a mess, like all volunteer organizations. They are not quasi-governmental. The city should not treat them as such.

But maybe my main takeaway is that the city’s code changes aren’t the apocalyptic event they’ve been made out to be. Here’s what a pair of NA members had to say…

MS: Our neighborhood association isn’t going anywhere. We have our own 501c3 status, and while we get some funds from our coalition, most of our activities are paid for by our fundraising. We can still send a letter to the City Council stating a position just like other nonprofits already do… [and] I agree with the premise that NAs do not connect with everyone, especially renters and POC. 

David Sweet: Not all neighborhood associations are agonizing over the proposed changes. The Cully Association of Neighbors (CAN), for one, is quite supportive. 

We are one of seven place-based community organizations in Cully working to maintain our racial and economic diversity and prevent the displacement of people of color and low-income people. And in terms of delivering tangible benefits to the people of Cully, we are probably the least of the seven.  

The other six provide affordable housing, and affordable commercial spaces, jobs and job training, education and childcare. Yet we are the only one to receive annual subsidies through the Coalition office; the only one privileged to comment on land use proposals and to appeal decisions about those proposals free of charge.  

Some neighborhood activists realize that it’s past time to end exclusive subsidies for what is too often a lobby for the interests of homeowners. CAN will continue to do our work after the code changes, and I suspect other neighborhood associations will as well. I’m glad that Commissioner Eudaly and Director Suk Rhee have the courage to pursue this change in the face of persistent and well-organized (and publicly subsidized) opposition.

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