Mitigating Displacement in a Rapidly Changing Neighborhood
Market forces for decades have increased housing costs in Portland, OR to such an extent that many people of color and low-income people have moved to the Cully Neighborhood. Cully was annexed into the City of Portland in 1985 and is in the next ring immediately northeast of the city core. As real estate costs have skyrocketed more recently, even people of moderate means are increasingly priced out of living in Portland. A 2015 report in Governing magazine found that Portland has experienced gentrification in more neighborhoods than any other of the nation’s 50 largest cities since 2000. Now higher-income and white people are increasingly moving to the Cully Neighborhood and again displacing low-income and minority residents.
The Cully Neighborhood does not have as much public infrastructure and investment as adjacent neighborhoods. There are fewer parks, no direct-to-downtown transit, and no community center or library. So the catalyst for rising property values and rents is primarily what is happening in the broader regional housing market and the geographic position of Cully immediately adjacent to neighborhoods that have seen good deal of public investment.
To ensure that low-income residents could remain in Cully, four community development and community service organizations decided to concentrate environmental investments at the neighborhood scale and braid those investments with traditional community development resources: Habitat for Humanity Portland/Metro East, Hacienda Community Development Corporation, Native American Youth and Family Center, and Verde. Together they created the community-based organization Living Cully. They determined that housing security was their main priority, and that the most effective tactic was to increase the neighborhood stock of regulated and subsidized housing. This “market shielded” housing would be kept off the speculative market so that market rates could not dictate its cost over time and it could be held below these rates and kept available for lower income families—owned and operated by an affordable housing nonprofit, part of a community land trust, under the auspices of the local housing authority, or built by partner Habitat for Humanity.
The organization met with community members and developed relationships with a range of community partners, including neighborhood associations, churches and government agencies. Living Cully and its partners have created economic, environmental and social benefits for Cully residents, employing a number of strategies:
Preserve housing affordability, by not only acquiring and setting aside land for affordable housing development, but also providing information to residents about tenant rights, foreclosure and home values, and providing direct assistance and information to lower home utility and maintenance costs.
Retain existing neighborhood businesses, by providing assistance to priority population small business owners.
Help families achieve economic self-sufficiency, by connecting priority populations to targeted employment and preparing them for long-term success, and by providing affordable childcare to working parents.
Living Cully collaborates extensively with the public sector on projects and also advocates on policy and funding, and the organization finds that the ability to use both of these tactics makes each of them more effective. For example, they have worked with the Parks Bureau and the City Council to plan and fund the building of a major new public park that will become part of the Portland public parks system.
Additionally, Living Cully recognizes that larger real estate and housing market and forces of displacement know no neighborhood boundaries, and therefore they must work city-wide beyond their neighborhood-based efforts. Living Cully is part of a 30-member anti-displacement coalition in Portland that recently worked with the City on its new 20-year comprehensive land use plan. All of the coalition’s policy proposals in some form were included in the final Comprehensive Plan, which was adopted by the Portland City Council in June 2016. According to Cameron Herrington, Living Cully’s Anti-displacement Program Coordinator, among the most important elements adopted in the plan is a requirement that any big development undergo a gentrification impact analysis, which will assess the effect that the development will have on the people living and working in the area.
Acquiring and shielding property from the market is becoming more difficult as property values continue to escalate quickly. The organization believes that land banking (i.e., (acquiring property and bringing it under community control, even if no funds are currently available to plan or build) is one of the most important tactics. A leading example is the Dudley St. Neighborhood Initiative in Boston. The City of Boston granted the organization power of eminent domain to acquire abandoned properties in parts of the neighborhood, and it has succeeded in gaining ownership of large swaths of land to develop housing as part of a community land trust. While Living Cully has had success securing national foundation funding, some public sector funding, assistance from the local government (i.e., for the park project), and some grassroots crowd-sourced funding for a few initiatives, securing resources to support land banking has been very challenging.
The organization deliberated around how to track their anti-displacement work. Sometimes household income is used as a measure, but it would be unclear whether a rise in household income resulted from low-income families leaving or from the help they provide families to increase their incomes. So Living Cully uses two primary indicators to evaluate its work:
Percentage of housing market in the “market-shielded” category—currently 14%, with the aim to at least maintain if not increase this market share as additional private sector housing is rapidly being constructed. They use this measure to indicate the extent to which the community is gentrification-proof.
Maintaining racial and ethnic diversity, which at present is above the Portland metro area average for both communities of color and older adults and below average for income. Even successful efforts to market-shield property will still leave the vast majority of land on the private market, thus requiring additional interventions to ensure diversity.
Guidance for Other Communities
Since “the forces of displacement do not know neighborhood boundaries,” according to Herrington, Living Cully stresses the importance of the larger real estate and housing market and the need for strong city-wide coalitions, indicating that so many other issues that nonprofits are working on (e.g., public health, education, pedestrian safety) are all affected by housing stability.
Additionally, there needs to be a focus on racial justice given the disproportionate impacts on communities of color from different policy and public investment decisions. Additional bold regulatory tools for combatting displacement and maintaining some balance in the housing market include rent controls and eviction regulations where these are not prohibited.
Aside from market-shielding land, Living Cully believes that community engagement is the most effective anti-displacement tactic. Robust community leadership in all of Living Cully’s efforts creates space for residents to identify issues they care most about and to organize campaigns in response. Living Cully sees this as foundational to its continued effectiveness and legitimacy as an organization—both within the neighborhood and with policymakers.
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