I Moved to the Edge of Portland to Help Refugees. But They Can't Afford to Live Here Anymore.

My apartment complex is one of the first places where people arriving from war zones live when they come to America. And the rent is going up.

A white supremacist killed a teenager with a car across the street from where I live.

The 7-Eleven is busy at all hours, a steady stream of people. A month ago there was a fight in the 7-Eleven parking lot, and a man recently out of prison hopped in his car and used it to run over a black 19-year-old named Larnell Malik Bruce. A makeshift memorial went up. My 6-year-old daughter saw the messages as we walked past, and I had to explain to her what they meant. A young man was killed in anger, I said, and it's OK to be sad.

My children play in the courtyard of my apartment complex, a maze of beige, two-story buildings. Some nights, loud bangs puncture the quiet—you never know if you are hearing fireworks or gunshots. The MAX station a block away plays classical music after dark to lower the rate of loitering and assaults.

I live in Rockwood, at Southeast 188th Avenue and East Burnside Street.

And the rent is going up.

This is one of the last affordable places left at the edge of Portland—and one of the first places where people arriving from war zones live when they come to America.

One of my neighbors, Shafi, works at the 7-Eleven. He is a refugee from Afghanistan, and he has lived here for almost two years. He has already been robbed at gunpoint twice while working. Shafi was behind the counter when Bruce was run over by the car. Shafi's wife is one of my good friends here. She always cooks food for me and invites me into their apartment. Their son, almost 2 and very energetic, loves to bang on my sliding glass door, often wearing a T-shirt with an American flag that reads "United States of Awesome."

I talked to Shafi a few days ago, and he told me his family will most likely be moving this month.

Why? They have many reasons. His wife is allergic, both to the mold in their apartment and to the trees and pollen outside. They know people in Georgia, and the rent will be cheaper there. They "are out of options" in Portland.

They can no longer afford to live at 188th and Burnside.

Lots of people in Portland are feeling the squeeze of rising rent. If you are a barista or a bartender or an artist, you might be moving farther out to the edges of the city, in search of a way to make it livable. You might, soon enough, come and live in Rockwood. This is what developers and landlords are hoping.

But it is also what will make it unaffordable for people with the lowest incomes. That includes refugees—my neighbors, who are trying to rebuild their lives in a new country.

Related: Meet the refugees who have become the newest Portlanders.

At night, I sit in the courtyard of my apartment building. I think about this neighborhood, and all the contradictions in it. I think about how much I adore the tacos and the views of Mount Hood and the once-cheap rent. But mostly these days, I can't help but think about how I am a part of the problem.

The author, D.L. Mayfield, with her son Ransom. She recently published her first book, Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith. (Joe Riedl) The author, D.L. Mayfield, with her son Ransom. She recently published her first book, Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith. (Joe Riedl)

I moved to this place because I thought I could make a difference.

For years, my husband and I have lived and worked within refugee communities, mostly in Portland. Born and raised an evangelical Christian, I went to Bible college to become a missionary and started volunteering with refugees, mostly from East Africa. Slowly I realized I didn't want to convert anyone to Western evangelicalism. I still believe in Jesus, but my work shifted toward a new mission: helping our refugee friends and neighbors navigate the complexities of life in America.

Eventually we joined a nonprofit that works in low-income communities and moved to Minneapolis for three years of training and experience. When we moved back to Portland last July, our city seemed unrecognizable. Where we used to live—close to inner Southeast Division Street—was now block after block of boutiques and high-end apartments, fried chicken and biscuits and expensive boots, $4 coffee sipped by people who looked and acted and dressed all the same.

Also, we couldn't afford to live there anymore.

Related: Portland, I love you, but you're forcing me out.

Accustomed to diversity and broke after a cross-country move, we applied to live at Barberry Village, just outside Portland city limits at the far western end of Gresham. We had heard the complex was home to many refugees. We wanted to live among people who were different from us, and help them adjust to life in a new country. Barberry was just what we had in mind.

A few years ago, in 2010 and 2011, new managers came to Barberry Village and discovered an excellent strategy for finding consistent, responsible tenants for a historically troubled area: working with resettlement agencies to rent to recently arrived refugee families.

The strategy worked. Barberry, which had been infamous to local police, saw a dramatic decrease in both police calls and vacancies. Police showed up at the building more than once a day, on average, in 2010; by last year, the number of calls had dropped by more than two-thirds, and Gresham police now say the building has the lowest number of calls of any apartment complex its size. By the time I got here in 2015, Barberry felt like a safe place to raise my own family.

Our apartment has a sliding glass door that opens onto a small concrete porch and large dirt courtyard. Twenty-three other apartments also back into this space.

It reminds me of a courtyard in Italy, a town square, a piazza of haphazard grass and porches with clothes and rugs drying in the sun, people grilling all kinds of food. An older woman from Cuba talks to me in super-fast Spanish, sure that I can understand her. A Somali woman is lonely in her second-floor apartment, trapped inside by having three kids under age 4. But mostly there are women from Afghanistan milling around, hanging out of windows to call to me, pushing strollers full of squalling children back and forth through the courtyard to each other's apartments. They stop in front of my little porch and scoop up my baby to kiss him. They chat with me, all of them with varying degrees of limited English.

In the late afternoon this spring, I would sit in a blue plastic chair outside while my children played in the dirt. I watched women feed their children small pieces of bread, and admired their beautiful outfits—dresses over billowy pants, floral and sheer headscarves on. They leaned on strollers as they talked in their own languages.

These women all knew why they were here—they escaped their countries, and were working hard to make a life here.

They were kind to me, cooking food for me, and laughing and joking. But they didn't understand my American ways, how I closed the blinds in my house at night, the way I craved privacy after a long day of caregiving.

And it hit me: I don't belong here.

Alaa Jasim, 35, in wheelchair, is a refugee from Iraq. On a recent afternoon, he was visiting Syrian refugees who live at Barberry Village. (Joe Riedl) Alaa Jasim, 35, in wheelchair, is a refugee from Iraq. On a recent afternoon, he was visiting Syrian refugees who live at Barberry Village. (Joe Riedl)

We got a letter in the mail three months ago. It said that in 90 days, when our one-year lease was up, the rent for our two-bedroom apartment would be raised by $110—from $830 to $940 a month.

On top of that, if we chose not to sign a new yearlong lease, we would be charged an extra $200 a month, effectively raising our current rent by more than 35 percent.

I felt slightly sick. I knew gentrification was coming to Rockwood, I just didn't expect it would happen this fast.

Rents are going up at extreme rates. I've never lived like this, with this kind of instability before. Owners can charge more because the market supports it. The trickle-down effect is snowballing—those who displaced people in North Portland, downtown and inner Southeast got pushed out themselves, and they keep spreading outward.

Related: The Portland rent spike has been spreading east for a year, pressuring low-income residents.

The trouble with these rising costs, of course, is what will happen to those living on fixed incomes. People cannot keep up, including recently arrived refugee families.

(Portland does not have a cap on raising rents—the city's newest rules require 90 days' notice for any increase more than 5 percent.)

With the rent increases at Barberry Village, many recently arrived refugees no longer qualify to rent—because the lease requires tenants to earn two times the rent. Refugees are given eight months of financial assistance by the government to get on their feet, and they have not had their benefits raised at a rate that lets their income keep pace with the rent hikes. (The Barberry owner and building manager both declined to comment.)

It has become official, written into the rental agreements of the complex that refugees inadvertently helped make more desirable—they don't make enough money to live in Portland.

More than 90 percent of refugees in Oregon get settled within the city of Portland because this is where they can access services. But within the past year, Catholic Charities of Oregon has begun placing people in Salem—70 so far—partly because of rising housing costs in Portland.

"We are still continuing to settle people in Portland, but we are also settling people in the Salem area because of the cost of living and the rent hikes," says James Howell, director of development for Catholic Charities of Oregon. "Portland is just proving to be more and more difficult."

Related: East Portland landlord gives tenants a choice: Pay a 45-percent rent hike, or get evicted.

After I got the rent-hike letter, a thought began bothering me. I had been pushing this thought aside for quite some time, but it came back.

What am I doing living here?

I thought I was helping. But instead it feels like I am just the first in a wave of changing the neighborhood.

I had come here to purposefully live among refugees. But I wasn't one of them. I was protected by my family ties, comfortable background, and economic class. This rent hike was unaffordable to many of my neighbors—and a mild inconvenience for me. That wasn't an accident: I was exactly the kind of person that property owners wanted to use to replace refugee families, one apartment at a time.

That change would happen with or without my taking up one unit in the building. But I hadn't even thought about it. I was focused on myself and what I wanted—cheap rent, a diverse neighborhood, the sense that I was doing good—but I had no knowledge of the structures and the systems and the history that was at work, forcing my neighbors out.

It was insistent, a worm eating through my heart: Good intentions aren't enough. I was living out another page in the history of a state that has accepted outsiders reluctantly.

So I started asking my neighbors about it.

Ana Luisa Díaz Villegos, 74, moved to the U.S. from Cuba last year. Her monthly rent is more than she receives from Social Security. “I don’t feel secure,” she says. (Joe Riedl) Ana Luisa Díaz Villegos, 74, moved to the U.S. from Cuba last year. Her monthly rent is more than she receives from Social Security. “I don’t feel secure,” she says. (Joe Riedl)

One of my neighbors, Anna Luisa Diaz Villegas, an older, energetic woman from Cuba, is on a fixed income. At age 74, she receives $733 a month in Social Security, but her rent is climbing to $1,060 this month.

"I can't pay more," she says. So where will she come up with the money? We don't answer the question, because neither of us know. Instead, she tells me again about the food bank at the middle school, and urges me to get free food for myself and to bring it to others. Instead of dwelling on her own problems, she tries to take care of me.

Another neighbor, Abdullah Ahmed, is from Iraq, and when I mention the rent increase, he grimaces and says, "Oh, yes—this is a big, big problem." With his son helping to translate, he tells us how he has lived in this apartment complex for five years, and recently started trying to find another place to live. But the few places he looked at were all more expensive than Barberry Village. So he will stay, for now. To make up the extra money, besides working at a laundry service, he hopes to become a taxi driver.

I knock on the door of three men who split the rent on a two-bedroom apartment; in the past, they have had as many as five people living in the same space to cut down on expenses. All three are refugees from Iraq.

When I ask about the rent increase, they all seem resigned."It's not a big deal," Sarmad Al Gharrawi says. But he is looking for another place to live so his fiancee from North Carolina can join him, and he says it has not been easy to find anything affordable. Although they talk about the rent and are looking for another place "every day," they say "this is the cheapest place."

Al Gharrawi and his roommates are like so many refugees who live here—arriving in Portland after a long and tangled trip, in his case through Syria, Jordan, Slovakia, Austria, Denmark and Sweden. The two-bedroom apartment he shares with his roommates was $750 a month when they started renting it two years ago. It will soon be $930, and they have to decide this month whether to sign another one-year lease. If they go month to month, looking for another place, the rent will jump to $1,130.

Another family, refugees from Nepal, is facing a similar rent hike. In the two years they have lived here, the rent has gone up almost $200 a month. The family has seven members, including twin babies.

"Every year it goes up," says Sumil Gurung. "I'm planning to move to Columbus, Ohio."

Since Barberry Village began renting to refugee families, crime at the apartment complex has plummeted. (Joe Riedl) Since Barberry Village began renting to refugee families, crime at the apartment complex has plummeted. (Joe Riedl)

My husband recently got a different job, a better one, and now he sits in an office in fancy clothes. The last paycheck he got made me finally relax. We are in the process of buying a house around the corner from our apartment complex.

He and I remain different from our refugee neighbors for an obvious reason: We can afford the down payment on a house. And I feel conflicted about that.

Related: Is it time for Portland to put a cap on rent hikes?

But buying a home is a more honest way of living here: It means a real financial stake for us. It means we aren't going anywhere, that we are invested. My daughter attends first grade at the local school, one of the most diverse places I have ever been.

I feel like my mission has changed: I want to convert Portlanders to care about what happens to people in Rockwood, before it's too late.

Because others are leaving, too.

My neighbor Mehrafzun caught me as I was walking past her back door. Come in, come in, she motioned, and I noticed her place was bare and clean. Where are you going? To Tigard, she told me. Why? This apartment is no good, she said, there are mice everywhere, my children are sick, the manager does not do anything.

She told me that for two months she walked the neighborhood, trying to find an affordable apartment. She wanted a three-bedroom for $1,200, and she could not find it. In Tigard, they found a two-bedroom for $1,100, on the second floor, and it is nice and clean, she tells me.

I remember the first night I met her, her family freshly arrived from Afghanistan, her living room empty save for a couch and two lamps with the shades upside down. In her limited English, she was desperate to talk to me, to tell me their story: how she was married at age 15, the troubles her family experienced, the flight to Iran, and then to Turkey, the years of second-class citizenship, and the eventual landing in America.

When I call her a few months later to tell her I am writing this story, she tells me she wants to stay in Oregon, because she likes it here. "Tigard is good," she says. But her husband, Abdul, has to commute over three hours a day to get to his job at a food-processing plant. Their new apartment is far from services like the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization. But in her trademark way, she does not complain. "I am happy you are sharing this story," she says. "We want people to care."

That night, I kissed her cheek and said goodbye. And already, I knew: This is what I will be doing for the next few years of my life. I will say goodbye to the people who have traveled across the world to live here.

And the rest of us are left with a question: Are we willing to live in a city that is unlivable for so many?

WW staff writer Rachel Monahan contributed reporting to this story.

This woman, who asked not to be named, arrived in Portland from Myanmar. (Joe Riedl) This woman, who asked not to be named, arrived in Portland from Myanmar. (Joe Riedl)

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