Believe it or not, Portland's considered one of the best planned cities in the country. We are the LeBron of progressive urbanism, with delegations from Abu Dhabi or Tokyo rolling in to admire our greenways and food carts. But Portland's strong liberal cred is also what makes the "stark, racialized gentrification" of North Portland's Albina neighborhood so shocking, says urban studies expert Matt Hern. The whitewashing of Albina as black residents are forced out—which went from 70-percent to 30-percent black in less than two decades—is so striking a case that Hern decided to use Albina as the setting for his new book about gentrification, What a City is For. In advance of his Monday reading at Powell's, we talked to Hern about why bike lanes are sometimes the enemy, and everything, and why bike-riding mayors aren't that great.
Why'd you set your book in Portland?
Portland is lauded in the urban planning literature. People come to look at bike neighborhoods, the food culture. Portland is also known for its liberal milieu. When I encountered the story of Albina—such a stark, racialized gentrification—I was so surprised. That it happened in such a progressive environment made it interesting.
Every city I go to I run into people encountering displacement as a core urban narrative—in Vancouver [British Columbia] rent has spiraled so precipitously it becomes the centerpoint of any political conversation. Everybody wants to talk about housing, not just because low-income people are displaced, but the threat of displacement looming over the city. People believe themselves powerless to stop it.
Is that not just the natural progression of neighborhoods—boom-and-bust gentrification?
That's the feeling people seem to express: "That's just the way the world works." It creates this environment of fear and selfishness that people have to look out for their own, because no one's looking out for them.
So what's the alternative?
Economists refer to both push and pull policies. There's a suite of policy options they call push policies: taxes, bylaws, inclusive and exclusive zoning that will restrict the marketplace. Without a doubt they work. Vancouver, under incredible pressure, instated a tax on foreign ownership—which is exactly wrong—and just yesterday a tax on empty houses. They had an immediate effect on cooling the market. But why just foreigners? In an era of Trump, that's super dangerous. It gives license to a darker kind of racism.
You feeling the effects of Trump in Canada?
Of course. But like Portland, we live in an era of good-looking, green, bicycle-riding, soundbite-having politicians who listen carefully and do little. My Portland activist friend Walida Imarisha calls it "death by listening."
[Mayor] Hales seems like a decent guy, I guess. The mayor of Vancouver here is kind of a buddy—great guy personally, a lovely sweet guy, but under his watch it's become the least affordable city in the world. You gotta take accountability for that. You can't just be nice and sweet and offer expressions of sympathy.
There's also a whole suite of "pull" policy options like social housing and shared equity.
Portland has recently offered low-income housing in Albina to people who can prove prior residency.
It's super interesting—it's a really important measure. But the scale is all fucked up. 10,000 black people have been pushed out. Putting in a hundred apartments is good, but it's hard to do that retroactively.
Does the city gain anything by privileging whoever historically lived in a neighborhood?
The notion of that gets complicated—who gets to claim what property on what basis? I use the example of one of my adult kids, complaining she'd never be able to live in her neighborhood. Just because she's lived here 25 years, what makes it ours? I meet nice white folks complaining they they can't afford to live in Albina anymore. It was cleared of black people, and before that viciously cleared of indigenous people. To say that original residents get to move back—what original residents are we talking about?
You quote a Portland activist named John Washington: "I knew black people were fucked as soon as I saw the bike lanes."
When he said that it was both funny and a bit startling, as somebody who rides a bike everywhere. But it's patently obvious. Gentrification has followed bike lanes almost everywhere. It turns our best intentions back on themselves.
So you're saying don't put in bike lanes?
That's the conundrum. I lived on Commercial Drive [in Vancouver] for 25 years raising a family. I ran a youth center, organized stuff with low income kids. But everything I do, everything my colleagues do, everything that makes it funkier and more vibrant has contributed to my own family and my neighbors not being able to stay here. Every time we have success we betray ourselves. [It] drives extreme levels of displacement. There's nothing natural about that—that's a creation of the market.
So you want rent control?
I think rent control all by itself is not sufficient—necessary, but insufficient.
The problem with an overheated market is people are perceiving property as the prime vehicle for profiteering. That's what's driving the marketplace. That can be taxed. The problem is not foreigners. The problem is too many people speculating.
A buddy of mine bought a house for 200 grand, and it's now worth 1.2 million. How can you blame people for cashing that in? Casting it as individual greed I don't think is useful.
But what's wrong with people gaining money on real estate?
The problem is that the rising value of his property is unearned. He did nothing to deserve that. If his property rose to $1.5 million over 15 years, he didn't do anything to earn that. He didn't plate the walls in gold. The question is, what caused that rise? The answer is it's the collective achievement of the city. Vancouver became an attractive place for all kinds reasons—vibrancy, ecological sensibility. If the city is a collective achievement, all the people contributed: nurses, firefighters, people who clean the streets. But only some profit: the half that own a house. The other half that doesn't own property gets left behind.
If that rise in value is collective, that value should be commensurately common. It's very easy to say, what part of the rise in property values is common should be socialized, and what part is earned should be kept. In my buddy's case, almost all of that rise is collective.
So basically the equivalent of an inheritance tax, but for inherited real-estate values?
That's a nice way to put it. Once you start that debate, you give each city the ability to be able to fix that problem, this is within our control. Some of [what's needed] is political courage.
In Vienna wealthy people don't rent out their homes, but rent from the municipality. It's complicated, but 90% of the market is owned by the state in Hong Kong.
The U.S. has long thought of home ownership as positive—to create stability.
There's some notion of the value of home ownership, but many of the arguments in favor are kind of specious. I'm not interested in opposing it, but on a large scale it creates a huge number of social issues. Security can be achieved without people commodifying homes and land.
You seem obsessed with Right 2 Dream Too as an exception to the market.
If a bunch of super scrappy homeless people can pull off an unbelievably effective housing experiment on 1,500 bucks a month—legions of highly paid, well-educated planners can't accomplish anything with that kind of effectiveness. With a bunch of tarps and a scrappy attitude they house 75 of the hardest to house people every night. It's inspiring as hell but also a model. I don't think R2D2 could be replicated specifically, but the example could be replicated, that there are other ways to think through issues that appear to be intractable.
That's the hope I have for a city, not just for Portland—to think of a city as a place for people. I talk about the city as a creative breach, as place where people can escape the bonds of kinship and all kinds of parochialisms, to think through the city as participatory experiment.
Hern will read from What a City is For: Remaking the Politics of Displacement on Monday, November 28 at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside St., powells.com, 7:30 pm. Free.