Who Gets to Live in Portland?

The more we’ve dug into your questions about Portland’s housing crisis this month, the more we’ve realized that the crisis — and the city’s response to it — really has two components.

We’ve mostly focused so far on the part that Portlanders see every day: homelessness.

But today we’re going to talk about the other part, gentrification, which has happened faster in Portland lately than almost any other city in the country.

The short version is that people started moving to Portland in huge numbers, and there wasn’t nearly enough new housing to accommodate them. This created a supply-and-demand problem that caused rents to go up like crazy, especially in the central city, and that pushed low- and middle-income families out toward the fringes.

(Historically, local government also played a role by backing “urban renewal” projects that displaced entire communities through eminent domain, mostly in African-American neighborhoods. But we’ll save that story for another day.)

Portlanders did their best to discourage newcomers by making ‘Portland Sucks’ PSAs and ruthlessly shaming Californians. But that didn’t work, so now the city’s left with Plan B: increasing the supply of housing and making more of it affordable.

Here are a few ways Portland is trying to do that:

Inclusionary zoning. Since 2017, Portland has required private developers to include affordable housing (a.k.a. units rented or sold for less than the price market) in most new developments. Developers lose money on these units, so the city uses other tools to try to make building in Portland more attractive…

Development perks. If inclusionary zoning is the stick, perks like tax exemptions and laxer height restrictions are the carrot. These types of perks allow developers to see some upside to building more affordable units.

Preference policies. To reverse some of the gentrification that pushed long-time residents, especially African-American residents, out of north and northeast Portland, the city created a ‘Right to Return’ policy that prioritizes displaced families for programs like loan assistance and subsidized housing. The policy has received international attention, but its implementation and results so far have been less than stellar.

Publicly subsidized housing. Part of the $652 million housing bond that voters approved this month will subsidize housing for families making as much as $65,000 per year. Yes, these families could afford market-rate rent somewhere in Portland, but they often need the subsidy to help them stay in their current neighborhood.

Displacement actually slowed down this year as rents stabilized and even started to drop. But that probably won’t last long, so housing advocates and policymakers are starting to look at more aggressive policies to keep gentrification at bay.

Residential infill. The city created zoning rules decades ago that prohibited development like duplexes and triplexes in Portland’s inner neighborhoods. But that’s led to less available housing, which has in turn driven up rents across the city. (Yes, the supply and demand thing again.) That’s why the city is now considering a policy that would reverse course and allow denser development to return.

Rent stabilization. This means there would be a cap on how much landlords can raise rent each year. Rent stabilization and rent control are both prohibited in Oregon, but activists have been working to change that.

Permitting reform. Developers say they’d build more housing if the city’s permitting process wasn’t so cumbersome and expensive. Mayor Wheeler says he’s working to change that, but the most recent signs of progress were in September.

Want to learn more about gentrification in our city? Check out the documentary ‘Priced Out: 15 Years of Gentrification in Portland, Oregon.