It's no secret the poor and people of color suffer the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Multnomah County, that phenomenon means people living east of 82nd Avenue get sick at more than double the rate of those living west of that street. It's no coincidence that the parts of Portland with the highest COVID case rates are the city's poorest and most diverse.

There are plenty of factors to suggest why COVID infections fall disproportionately along race and class lines. People of color often have less access to health care and suffer from chronic conditions that make the disease worse. Plus, many minorities also work frontline jobs with the most risk of exposure to the virus.

But an analysis by WW of census data shows another reason: The neighborhoods hit hardest by COVID-19 are the same places where people live in extremely close quarters.

East of 82nd Avenue, data shows, people are packed into housing, often without enough rooms for people to sleep away from others when they get sick.

Immigrants and refugees, who often reside in this part of the city, traditionally live with their entire families, but Portland offers few affordable alternatives that could accommodate them.

YARD SALE: A food cart is tucked against the edge of an apartment complex along Southeast 122nd Avenue. (Alex Wittwer)
YARD SALE: A food cart is tucked against the edge of an apartment complex along Southeast 122nd Avenue. (Alex Wittwer)

Kim Toevs, director of communicable disease for the Multnomah County Health Department, says crowded housing is a dire problem during a pandemic.

"When folks are living together in a smaller house or when there's more people in a household," she says, "it's trickier for folks to figure out how to navigate not exposing their whole household if they get sick."

WW analyzed rental housing density for 32 ZIP codes in Multnomah County. We found that eight of 12 ZIP codes in East Portland, Fairview and Gresham had a higher proportion of overcrowded households than the county average.

Put another way, two-thirds of East Portland renters' households are in zip codes more overcrowded than the county average.

It's also the case that a disproportionate percentage of Multnomah County's COVID-19 cases are people east of 82nd Avenue.

All but one of the 11 ZIP codes we examined in East Portland had a higher case rate than the county average. Meanwhile, all but two of the 19 ZIP codes of inner Portland—the more affluent portion of the city west of 82nd Avenue—had a lower average.

East of 82nd Avenue, the rate of infection is 84 cases per 10,000 people. That's well above the Multnomah County rate of 55 cases per 10,000 and the statewide average of 43.7 cases per 10,000.

On the west side of the Willamette River, in the city's best-known ZIP code, 97201, the rate is just 25.1 cases—about one-sixth of the highest rates in East County.

In other words, the highest rate of COVID-19 infections in the city fall in the same neighborhoods where people live in close quarters—all east of 82nd Avenue.

In fact, two of the three ZIP codes with the highest COVID-19 rates in Multnomah County are also the two ZIP codes with the highest share of crowded households (see charts).

In effect, the virus reveals that Portland is two different cities. In many of the city's central neighborhoods, people are returning to everyday life—even sipping a weekend pint at a sidewalk bar. But on the eastern edges of Portland, residents are forced by economic necessity to go to work and are packed together in tight quarters when they come home.

Nowhere is the disparity in housing density felt more sharply than among Portland's immigrant and refugee communities, whose members live predominantly east of 82nd Avenue.

Members of those communities are among those testing at a disproportionately high rate for the coronavirus.

Pacific Islanders have 239.6 cases per 10,000 people—more than double the number of any other demographic. Following them are Hispanic residents with 120 cases per 10,000 and Black people with 79.9 cases per 10,000. For white people, the rate is just 19.7 cases per 10,000.

Experts say that gentrification and Portland's chronic shortage of affordable housing and lack of family-sized living quarters, which forced impoverished residents to the eastern edge of Portland, also could place them at greater risk from the relentless virus. Large families that seek to live together, often with several generations in the same home, cannot afford or even find a place with enough bedrooms to keep a safe distance from each other.

Along 122nd Avenue. (Alex Wittwer)
Along 122nd Avenue. (Alex Wittwer)

For families who move here from other places, such as Mexico, Latin America and Africa, multigenerational living is both a function of economics and tradition. In many situations, the unfamiliarity of a new country makes staying together imperative.

Djimet Dogo, associate director of the Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization, says his thousands of clients would need temporary housing when a family member gets sick to prevent further spread.

"In many cases, we have entire households who are infected by COVID," Dogo says. "The young will recover, but the elderly? Some are still in the hospital as we speak."

The dread of illness looms over families who live multigenerationally or tightly with large families in East Portland. This summer, WW spoke with three of those families as they sought to avoid bringing the pandemic into their homes.

Melissa Lewis, a data reporter at Reveal/The Center for Investigative Reporting, and Jamaal Green, an independent data analyst, contributed reporting to this story.

Jamal Dar, executive director of the African Youth and Community Organization, assisted with translation.

FAMILY PORTRAIT: Amran Goni (left) and seven of her eight children pause from playing at the Lincoln City Park playground. She raises the children as a single mother. (Alex Wittwer)
FAMILY PORTRAIT: Amran Goni (left) and seven of her eight children pause from playing at the Lincoln City Park playground. She raises the children as a single mother. (Alex Wittwer)

Amran Goni
Southeast Division Street and 130th Avenue

Amran Goni spent most of her life in a refugee camp in Kenya, escaping a civil war in her native Somalia.

Goni, 33, moved to Portland in 2013 with her four children. Now, she is mother to eight kids—ages 3 to 18—whom she supports on her own. Before the pandemic, she worked as a chef at Portland International Airport, preparing meals for airline passengers.

Goni and her eight children live in a three-bedroom apartment in outer East Portland at the intersection of Southeast 130th Avenue and Division Street that she pays $1,155 a month to rent. They sleep three to a room.

"It is too tight for all of us," Goni says in Somali through a translator, "but we cannot afford to rent a bigger apartment."

The apartment got smaller when the COVID-19 virus arrived in Portland. What once felt cramped, Goni says, now sometimes feels like jail.

BREAKING AWAY: Three of Goni’s lively children race each other on the basketball court of Lincoln Park Elementary School. (Alex Wittwer)
BREAKING AWAY: Three of Goni’s lively children race each other on the basketball court of Lincoln Park Elementary School. (Alex Wittwer)

Goni suffers from diabetes, and two of her children are immunocompromised. If one family member contracts the virus, she fears it could spread to the entire household. In her home, social distancing is nearly impossible.

Infection is not a risk she's willing to take. Goni has effectively quarantined her family, even though no one is sick. She halted almost all social interactions for everyone in the household. She only allows her children to play at the park once a week. Her oldest son, 18-year-old Salman Hashi, is allowed to shoot hoops—by himself.

"It's hard because the children always want to play," Goni says. "I am worried. I am always thinking about [COVID-19]."

When another son, Abdirahman, celebrated his sixth birthday in May, no friends or classmates were invited.

"We watched funny YouTube videos and he loves kisses, so we all tried to cheer him up that way," says Asha Goni, 15, the family's only daughter.

STILL LIFE: Goni’s only daughter, Asha, who is 15, poses for a portrait on Aug.2. She helps her mom take care of her siblings and enjoys cooking. (Alex Wittwer)
STILL LIFE: Goni’s only daughter, Asha, who is 15, poses for a portrait on Aug.2. She helps her mom take care of her siblings and enjoys cooking. (Alex Wittwer)

Meanwhile, Amran Goni faces a new challenge to keep her family healthy.
Goni just started working a part-time job as a home care aide, increasing her risk. Before, the African Youth & Community Organization provided financial support.

"It's hard," Goni said. "We are worried like everyone else in the community, but we are grateful for what we have."

CLOSE BOND: Belen Gomez and her four-year-old son Santi pose in their East Portland apartment backyard. Gomez’s older brother, younger sister, mom, dad and son all share this two-bedroom residence. (Alex Wittwer)
CLOSE BOND: Belen Gomez and her four-year-old son Santi pose in their East Portland apartment backyard. Gomez’s older brother, younger sister, mom, dad and son all share this two-bedroom residence. (Alex Wittwer)

Belen Gomez

Northeast Glisan Street and 178th Avenue

Belen Gomez, 24, lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Gresham with her family of six, which moved to the U.S. from Michoacán, Mexico, when Gomez was 6 years old.

Rent for the apartment is $1,270 a month. Her parents share one bedroom. Gomez, her 4-year-old son, and her younger sister share the other room, while her older brother sleeps on the couch.

"The apartment is not big enough for all of us, and we're always so close to each other," Gomez says. "It feels like canned food right before you open it. We're all just mushed together."

The thought of COVID-19 keeps Gomez awake at night. She tries to keep herself distracted, but the stress and fear of getting sick creep into her mind.

Ernesto Fonseca, chief executive of Hacienda Community Development Corp., a nonprofit that provides housing support for the Latinx community, says the breadwinners in many immigrant and refugee families do not have the ability to work from home. They work in service industries, such as landscaping, painting, construction, or maintenance and cleaning services. They have to go to work and share spaces with many other people.

"Many families are concerned they will bring something back to their homes where they have middle-aged to older adults," Fonseca says.

Gomez's mom and son are the only ones who have not left the apartment except once to attend her sister's high school graduation in early July. Gomez, her dad and sister work essential jobs, so they all leave home most days of the week.
Her mother has a weakened immune system from a prior illness, and her lungs don't oxygenate at 100%. She prays her family stays safe.

"I am scared, especially when they leave the house," her mom, Luz Maria Gomez, says in Spanish. "I don't want to think about what would happen. I can only hope they're careful and take precautions when leaving and entering the house."

The family has always shared a small space and didn't think much of it until the pandemic. Now, the walls are closing in.

Gomez was scrolling through Facebook one day when she saw a friend who reported a positive test for the coronavirus. In the post, the friend wrote about renting an Airbnb to quarantine. Gomez and her family could not afford to do anything like that.

"Even if you're in quarantine, your bills have to get paid," Gomez says. "What if I get sick, what am I going to do? I share a room, my parents share a room. Where would I go?"

Andrea Valderrama (top) and her five-year-old daughter, Rosalía Ka Ling, at Blue Lake Regional Park in Fairview.
Andrea Valderrama (top) and her five-year-old daughter, Rosalía Ka Ling, at Blue Lake Regional Park in Fairview.

Andrea Valderrama

Hazelwood neighborhood

Andrea Valderrama, advocacy director of the Coalition of Communities of Color, is steeped in local policy issues, having served on the David Douglas School District board and run for Portland City Council in 2018.

And Valderrama herself lives in multigenerational housing.

Her family fled Peru before she was born because of violent political unrest, something she hasn't discussed much outside her family. Now, Valderrama, 31, lives with her 5-year-old daughter, her mom and her mom's husband in a three-bedroom, one-bathroom house that she owns.

Valderrama enjoys having her mom around. She cooks everyone traditional Peruvian meals and helps take care of her daughter. Their bond is important and part of their cultural identity.

"I think in American Western culture, the separation from your parents is an achievement," Valderrama says. "In our culture, it's almost the exact opposite. There's a lot of benefits—even if the space is 900 square feet."

But Valderrama is aware that if someone in her family took ill, the rest would have nowhere to go. Her advocacy work and the demands of parenting, along with the constant fear someone may catch the virus, make her feel she is failing at everything.

"It's been a big challenge mentally and emotionally. There's this concern about whether we're able to make ends meet and whether we're able to keep housing," Valderrama says. "There's literally nowhere else for us to go, and that's something I am continuously anxious about."

Valderrama’s mom, Ana, and daughter decorate holiday treats together this past December (below). Ana cooks traditional Peruvian food and helps Valderrama with her daughter when she can.
Valderrama’s mom, Ana, and daughter decorate holiday treats together this past December (below). Ana cooks traditional Peruvian food and helps Valderrama with her daughter when she can.

Multnomah County officials have one option.

The Joint Office of Homeless Services and the county have reserved a block of hotel rooms for people infected with the coronavirus who need to be quarantined. The project was aimed at houseless people, says Toevs, the county's disease director, but the county now offers it to people in cramped quarters. The project has 120 rooms available as of Aug. 3, but only 25 are occupied.

"By the time they get diagnosed, they've probably exposed the folks in their house anyways," Toevs says, "but we do want to have that as an option."

But Dogo, the IRCO director, says he has no way of referring members of his community to medical motels. And he's not sure how much good it would do.

"In some cases, the youngest ones with no underlying conditions have to quit their job to help [sick members] in their household," Dogo says. "Once they quit their job, there is no income—and so how can we help this household?"

Valderrama was also alarmed by recent reports of immigration raids at motels. "If that were to happen in Oregon," she says, "I don't think my family would be open to utilizing hotels as a quarantine option."

Valderrama worries as she juggles multiple tasks each day. She can visibly see the impact that lost learning is having on her daughter and the job she has and is passionate about bringing in the income that helps support her family.

"This bizarre expectation on moms to 'balance everything' is untenable. I can't quit my job and I can't cut my hours back," Valderrama says. "My community needs me, and we need to advocate and fight for these things. It's a lot. You do what you can."