When the Big One Hits, Hundreds of Portland’s Buildings Could Crumble. Is it Fair to Make Property Owners Prepare?

The story of earthquake preparedness in Portland is a complicated saga of bureaucratic and political failings.

Ace Hotel. (Justin Katigbak)

Parishioners gather inside Christ Memorial Community Church on North Killingsworth Street to ponder eternity.

About 50 met last Sunday to sing praises along to a tambourine melody and listen to a sermon about relying on the Lord's wisdom.

"I don't worry about what the government says," preaches Pastor Roy Tate. "I don't worry about tomorrow, because I know who holds my future. And my future is in his hands."

This is a sacred place. A house of worship. One of the few places Portland's black citizens can return to be near what was once their Main Street.

And if the Cascadia subduction zone earthquake hits Portland on a Sunday morning, the sanctuary could become a portal to the hereafter.

Christ Memorial is among more than 1,600 of the city's unreinforced masonry buildings, or URMs, that aren't ready for an earthquake. When the "Big One" hits, many of these buildings could crumble into a pile of bricks.

Christ Memorial Community Church is one of 1,600 unreinforced masonry buildings that would crumble in an earthquake. (Justin Katigbak)

For five years, Portland city officials have been trying to prepare the city's structures for such an earthquake, by requiring owners to upgrade them, or at least post warnings.

But for some of the city's most prominent black ministers, the city's demands are just the latest example of the institutional racism that razed black neighborhoods and drove African-American residents to the edges of town.

"It's gentrification—to move us out," says Pastor Tate. "It's an effort for the builders from out of state to buy up properties."

E.D. Mondaine, pastor of Celebration Tabernacle Church and head of the NAACP of Portland, says forcing cash-strapped property owners to prepare for the Big One is discriminatory because the largest burden will fall on the people least able to pay.

"This action drives the nail in the coffin of gentrification of the African-American community, which is a continued insult," Mondaine testified before the Portland City Council on Feb. 20. "This continues to widen the gap in a state that was founded on white supremacy."

To former City Commissioner Steve Novick—who championed earthquake preparation—that claim is frustrating.

Novick agrees the city has historically acted unjustly to black residents, but he says no one would be decrying seismic upgrades as racial injustice if they took the threat of earthquake seriously.

"I think I can make an argument that warnings on cigarette packs have a disproportionate income impact on minority business owners," says Novick. "Convenience stores make a ton of their money off of cigarettes. More than half of 7-Eleven franchise owners are people from ethnic minorities.

"But you never hear anyone saying we need to repeal cigarette warnings because of the disproportionate impact on minority business owners, because people take lung cancer seriously. They don't think lung cancer is hoax designed to oppress minority business owners."

The danger at Christ Memorial is hardly unique. Neither is the denial.

The debate over whether Portland's earthquake preparedness policy is racist has grabbed headlines and raised eyebrows. But it's just the most volatile element in a brew of outrage.

Dante’s is among the Portland nightclubs on the city’s list of URMs. (Justin Katigbak)

For three years, property owners have mounted a campaign to resist the city's efforts to require owners of unreinforced masonry to make expensive upgrades to their buildings.

Last month, City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, the first black woman on the Portland City Council, hit the reset button.

On Jan. 31, she directed Portland Fire & Rescue, which she oversees, not to enforce the city rule requiring most URM owners to post signs by March 1 warning their buildings "may be unsafe in an event of a major earthquake."

Instead, Hardesty has launched a new public process, to figure out a plan with yet another advisory committee. In the meantime, URMs will continue to be earthquake unready.

Some say she's correcting badly conceived policies.

"It took a lot of political courage," says John Russell, owner of a downtown URM building.

Others—including Novick—are fearful and say Hardesty, who has delayed enforcement of the new rules, shouldn't be running the process.

"It's interesting [Mayor Ted] Wheeler has left Jo Ann Hardesty in charge," Novick says. "I'd be curious about polling the chicken owners of Portland to see how many of them have hired foxes to guard their coops."

The backlash against earthquake preparedness has unified a wide cross section of constituencies Portland holds dear—the arts community, tenants' rights advocates, small businesses and black ministers—who say City Hall is demanding too much of business owners.

The past three years have descended into a fight over what the standards should be, how much time owners should have to comply, and what notice they should have to provide to anyone walking into their buildings or viewing property records.

The best argument for what Hardesty is doing is that she's dialing down the temperature—and that practicing better politics will make the city better prepared.

The least charitable reading is that she's allowing the city to compromise with property owners—and failing to brace for the inevitable disaster of an earthquake that could be as strong as the 2011 quake in Japan.

The story of earthquake preparedness in Portland is a complicated saga of bureaucratic and political failings. But it hinges on a simple question: Is it better to be fair or be safe?

The venerable Keller Auditorium (above) is one of thousands of buildings now required to posts signs warning of earthquake danger. (Justin Katigbak)

If for some reason you've just landed in Portland from Mars, or have lived in a cannabis-infused state of ignorant bliss, Oregon is expecting the Big One. Within the next 50 years, there's a 22 to 26 percent minimum probability Portland will be hit by at least an 8.0 magnitude earthquake, the likes of which the region has not seen since Jan. 26, 1700, according to Oregon State University professor Chris Goldfinger. (That's a minimum probability in part because shallower fault lines lie in the West Hills, and no one knows when to expect a quake there.)

Nobody knows when an earthquake is coming, but it's widely accepted that the most at-risk building type are the beautiful, mostly brick structures that dot the Pearl District, Old Town and the business districts of Portland.

"More than any other kind of construction, they can be singled out as being seismically vulnerable," reads a report prepared for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 2009—10 years ago.

Their risk has been known longer, but Portland is still dithering on what to do.

Many of Portland's 1,650 URM buildings probably won't survive an earthquake. And they're not being brought up to current building code standards very quickly.

Ace Hotel (Justin Katigbak)

The prospect is grim for the very people the city should be most concerned about protecting. After a quake, another debate over inequality would ensue—but reversed, with the city and property owners blaming each other for failing to protect the most vulnerable.

"It's people over 65," says Courtney Patterson, interim director of the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management. "It's people with disabilities. It's people of color, it's low-income people. I'm talking up to 80 percent of the people that get hurt. All the conversations we're having now we'll be having after the earthquake. We can either do it now, or the earthquake's going to do it for us."

For years, the city has crafted policies that ratcheted up the pressure on building owners to upgrade their properties.

In 1995, Portland began requiring building owners to upgrade to the most current earthquake safety standards when they added more occupants to a building or spent a certain amount on renovation. For unreinforced masonry buildings, the city required roofs to be bolted to walls when a roof was redone.

By January of this year, a push to require URM buildings to complete seismic upgrades was watered down by Mayor Ted Wheeler, who also extended the deadline for repairs.

But even that was too much—and City Hall is feeling the shock waves.

Brian Faherty moved his company, Schoolhouse Electric & Supply Co., to this unreinforced masonry building in 2011. Now he fears it will ruin him. (Justin Katigbak)

At the edge of industrial Northwest Portland stands an old red brick warehouse. It's four stories tall, with high, broad wood beams and carefully laid brick that arches over the third-floor windows.

If beauty took precedence over an aversion to risk, you'd want to work in this 1910 building, too.

More than 200 people are employed in this building—which is made of unreinforced masonry.

In 2011, Brian Faherty, founder of Schoolhouse Electric & Supply Co., a firm that designs and finishes lighting and other home products, moved his company from the central eastside, where it had grown to three buildings, to a single spot here. (He also has stores in Pittsburgh and the TriBeCa neighborhood of New York City.)

Faherty is drawn to fixing up old things and to this style of old brick buildings. He owns three Portland URMs.

He knew what he was buying. And he carefully avoided repairing more than half the roof or investing more than $43 per square foot, which would have triggered the city's requirement to make seismic upgrades.

Asked if he worries about an earthquake, he says, "I don't really."

Instead, he fears financial ruin. He estimates the building, which he calls his "family's biggest asset," is worth $8 or $9 million. The seismic upgrades the city wants him to make could cost $8.7 million, according the city's square footage estimates, though Faherty believes it would cost far more.

He calls the city's rules "a new form of redlining."

Faherty is part of a growing alliance: Portlanders who believe requiring business owners to make their buildings earthquake safe is an injustice.

Many of them have sympathetic stories. They are small business owners. Or their life savings and retirement are tied up in a building, which they hoped would see them through their old age. Their buildings are beloved landmarks on the main streets of Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard or Belmont Street.

The group includes music and arts venues, such as the venerable nightclubs Dante's and Laurelthirst Pub.

But the political powder keg didn't comprise just small businesses and the arts community. It added race.

Last June, black leaders from churches in North and Northeast Portland (eight black churches in the city are URMs, by the Emergency Management Bureau's tally) complained to the mayor that the city had blindsided them with the requirement  to invest in seismic upgrades.

Shortly after Hardesty became the first black woman on the City Council, the African-American ministers intensified their outcry.

On Saturday, Jan. 5, a group of protesters held a rally outside City Hall demanding racial justice.

The groups, led by the NAACP of Portland, repeated their demand that the city roll back its requirements for warning signs on unreinforced masonry buildings. "Oregon has continued to keep its promise of exclusion of African-Americans from being property owners and cardholders in the game," said Mondaine, president of the NAACP. "There is a threat to finalization of gentrification and displacement of the African-American community."

Mondaine and other property owners believe if they are forced to register their structures as unsafe, it could lower their property values. But they were also spreading a more insidious and unproven belief: that city officials are scheming to lower those property values so real estate developers could swoop in and buy places like churches on the cheap, knock them down and build condos.

The people who run the Bureau of Emergency Management say that's bunk.

"It's got no basis in fact," says interim director Patterson. "Our bureau, we don't have a close relationship with developers."

"It's a conspiracy theory," says Jonna Papaefthimiou, manager of planning, policy and community programs for the bureau.

Read more: Four rumors have sprouted during Portland's earthquake backlash. What's the truth?

Hardesty says activists have exaggerated the financial peril created by city policies. "I think the advocate side of this has been: 'The sky is falling. The sky is falling. The city is taking our property. The city is using racist policy to remove African-American faith institutions and nonprofits.' Both sides have had missteps."

Interestingly, Mondaine's church, Celebration Tabernacle, has a grant from the city's economic development agency, Prosper Portland, that he says will help with seismic upgrades. City Hall could have crafted a similar solution for the other seven imperiled black churches.

"We approached it as a technical issue, which it is in a lot of ways," says Papaefthimiou. "We didn't take the step back and say, 'Well, who are we doing this for?'"

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty has delayed the requirement for URM owners to post warning signs. (Justin Katigbak)

Hardesty was spurred to action by a typo.

In the first weeks of 2019, Portland City Hall notified building owners they needed to put up a placard about the earthquake dangers posed by their buildings.

It gave them a hard deadline to file a record of doing so with the county: Jan. 1. That date had already passed. The deadline was in fact March 1.

So property owners and their allies flipped out.

"Who is driving this bus?" wrote Meara McLaughlin, executive director of MusicPortland, in an email, alarmed about music venues that would be affected. "This situation is bad enough without big errors."

In January, Hardesty met with Mayor Wheeler, asking for his help in addressing the backlash.

He was unmoved. "'I have no interest in slowing it down; I'm just going to keep moving forward,'" she recalls him telling her. "We agreed to disagree."

So Hardesty hit the brakes herself—without his permission.

"She really didn't have authority to instruct her bureaus not to enforce an ordinance enacted by the council," says John DiLorenzo, an attorney for Portland landlords who owns URM apartments himself and is suing to halt the URM ordinance. "That said, her action set into motion a political course which ended up helping us."

And she followed up Feb. 27 by persuading a majority of the City Council—Commissioners Chloe Eudaly and Nick Fish—to postpone any signage requirements and get rid of the requirement to officially post notice at the county's property records office that owners would put up the placards. (That last part had implications for property sales and banks considering financing.)

Wheeler was absent and Commissioner Amanda Fritz voted no.

"I was elected to do a job," says Hardesty. "I think what people are seeing is someone who's energetic and cares passionately about people."

Hardesty says placards and safety requirements will be back. And she may try to provide public financing for owners of some URMs.

"I have no intentions of repealing the ordinance," she says, despite church and building owners' pressure to do so.

Dan Saltzman, who retired in December after 20 years as a city commissioner, has made it clear he's not impressed by Hardesty's effort.

Saltzman thinks the most vulnerable Portlanders are being ignored. "These issues affect today's 10-year-olds," he says. "They don't have a voice at the table."

Hundres of buildings are now required to posts signs warning of earthquake danger. (Justin Katigbak)

At Portland City Hall, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

Consider the fight over building new apartments in residential neighborhoods like Laurelhurst. Neighborhood associations organize against change. The future inhabitants of new housing exist in theory—but not as an immediate threat to politicians.

There isn't a keep-us-safe-from-the-earthquake lobby at City Hall. But there are property owners, worried their key financial assets may be worth nothing more than the land they're sitting on.

Portlanders are well aware of the earthquake risk. A 2018 DHM Research poll showed more than 7 in 10 Portlanders expect a sizable natural disaster, and more than 8 in 10 are most worried about an earthquake.

"That's more people than who believe in global warming," says Papaefthimiou, the emergency planning manager. "That's probably more people than know who is president at the moment. For 80 percent of people to know we have a significant earthquake risk is pretty good."

So what about the people who could die? What about guests at the Ace Hotel? What if the Big One hits during a show at Keller Auditorium? What about employees at Schoolhouse?

What if it hits when people are at home? Tenants' rights leaders dismiss the question.

"If buildings are going to be made safe, I don't want buildings to be made safe for rich people," says Anthony Bencivengo of Portland Tenants United. "I want buildings to be made safe for people to remain in the city of Portland. Gentrification and displacement are their own disaster."

What happens if it hits on a Sunday, while people are in church?

"It's a rather unfair question to ask me if I'm concerned," says Bishop Marcus Irving, senior pastor of Albina Christian Life Center. "For the city to change its codes, and then ask me if I'm concerned about safety about satisfying their requirements, is rather unfair. Of course I'm concerned. I just don't know how to fix that."

Hardesty? She's concerned. But she says a small delay will help get people on board with the inevitable.

"This was rolling out over a 20-year period of time," she says. "Our mandate gave people a generation to do the repairs that needed to be done. Me delaying another year, or year and a half, won't have as big an effect if we were already giving people 20 years."

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