The Long Goodbye

The last African-American family on a Portland block faces losing its home.

Over the fireplace, Helen, 77, and her husband, Nelson, 82, display photographs of their six children. Pictures of their 12 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren ring a nearby mirror. Out back, she shows a red picnic table where they celebrate all the grandkids' birthdays, and each child's name is inscribed in Sharpie.

In the dining room hangs a chandelier that Murray brought to this house 33 years ago when they moved in. Her daughter Victoria, who died in 1981 at age 11, loved it, and the family wanted the light fixture here so they could remember her.

"This is where I really started living," Helen says.

But the Murrays face foreclosure on their 1925 bungalow, located near the border between the Irvington and Boise-Eliot neighborhoods.

They decline to talk much about race, but neighbors say they are the last African-American family on Northeast 11th Avenue between Stanton and Knott streets, a block many black families once called home.

"It was evenly divided between black and white," says Dennis Adams, a neighbor for 24 years. "Now it's gentrified even for us."

Portland has seen African-American families forced out of North and Northeast Portland for decades as housing prices there have risen and neighborhoods undergo gentrification. Mayor Charlie Hales earlier this year made reversing this trend one of his top priorities.

"Portland has had policies and projects that have led to disinvestment, disruption and dislocation for our communities of color," Hales declared in his State of the City speech in March. "We need to own this history, while we work to write new history."

In some ways, Hales has recognized the problem just in time to see the last black families on many North and Northeast streets leave. It's not the city's place to rescue all homeowners who are underwater with their mortgages. But the city lacks a cohesive strategy for addressing the economic pressures on low- and medium-income families who have lived in these neighborhoods for years and can no longer afford to stay.

"Everything that's happened in Northeast Portland they could have seen coming," says James Posey, co-founder of the Portland chapter of the National Association of Minority Contractors and a former mayoral candidate. "It was obvious people were going to be displaced. The black community's been hit, like a sledgehammer to the head."

Helen and Nelson Murray came separately to Portland from Birmingham, Ala.—Helen at age 15, Nelson at 22. The two later met on the street in Portland when Nelson asked for Helen's name. She gave him a fake one. Later that night, she got a phone call from him—he'd managed to steal her phone number from her sister. They married two years later.

They always lived in Northeast Portland, with Helen raising the children and Nelson working in an iron foundry and at an aluminum company. Their children went to Grant and Benson high schools, they shopped for groceries at the Safeway near Lloyd Center, and the family attended Emmanuel Temple Church on North Sumner Street.

In 1981, they moved to their house at 2747 NE 11th Ave., a street where half the residents were African-Americans. They found themselves in a close-knit neighborhood, where people of all colors threw regular block parties. Helen and her neighbors exchanged recipes for collard greens and peach cobbler.

Nelson retired in 1986 after he broke his hip in a car accident. They live on about $3,000 a month from a pension, Social Security and rent paid by their daughter, Yolanda, 53, who has lived with them since 2012.

The Murrays say they fell into debt over the years and in 2007 refinanced their house, taking out $310,000 to pay the debts and to live on the money. They signed a mortgage that was an increasingly popular option before the financial meltdown in 2008. The loan, called a "pick-a-payment" plan, allowed the Murrays to make extremely low payments of $1,138 a month on their mortgage for the first year. After that, the payments would grow by as much as 7.5 percent a year.

The mortgage came from World Savings Bank, which later changed its name to Wachovia, one of the banks that teetered near collapse after the 2008 meltdown, thanks in large part to mortgages such as the one the Murrays had. (Wachovia was absorbed by Wells Fargo in 2009.)

The overall result for the Murrays was a skyrocketing mortgage payment they could not keep up with: It's now $2,183 a month. And the original $310,000 principal has ballooned to $335,449.

"It's a bad idea to have that type of thing," Nelson says of the mortgage. "There should be a warning."

The city has watched the gentrification of North and Northeast Portland for more than two decades. But in the past 10 years, City Hall has begun sounding alarms about the declining African-American population within city limits. The 2010 census showed how quickly the migration has taken place. In neighborhoods east of Interstate 205, the black population had grown 166 percent in a decade, while declining 13 percent in the rest of the city ("The Other Portland," WW, Oct. 12, 2011).

In 2013, reports by the city's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability and Portland State University said dozens of neighborhoods were still at risk for further displacement of minority residents and that "low-income households, the elderly and people with disabilities" were most vulnerable to being pushed out of their longtime homes.

In February, growing resentment blew up in Hales' face, when an advocacy group called the Portland African American Leadership Forum protested development of a planned Trader Joe's grocery store on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, demanding that the project include affordable housing. Hales responded by pledging to divert $20 million in urban renewal money for affordable housing in North and Northeast Portland neighborhoods. 

The city's Housing Bureau already had programs in place when Hales arrived in office that were designed to ease the effects of gentrification. They include loans for second mortgages, home repair for people making less than 50 percent of median income, and counseling for first-time home buyers and homeowners trying to avoid foreclosure.

Hales spokesman Dana Haynes says the mayor hasn't made changes to those policies, but the city is focusing on equity as it updates the Comprehensive Plan. "We don't know what the magic bullet is," Haynes says. "We think listening to the community is a pretty good start."

Critics, however, question whether the city is doing enough.

"There's a very troubling undercurrent out there that says, 'Northeast Portland is gone. Too many people are gone,'" says Lisa K. Bates, professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State. "That's absolutely incorrect. There needs to be a message: 'We have to act now.'"

Court documents show the Murrays started falling behind on their mortgage payments as early as 2008 and stopped making payments altogether in February 2013. In July 2013, Wells Fargo went to Multnomah County Circuit Court to foreclose on the loan. The Murrays say they have applied to modify their mortgage, and so far the foreclosure proceedings have been put on hold.

"We want to continue to work with the Murrays and identify options that can keep them in their home," says Wells Fargo spokesman Tom Goyda.

The biggest problem is the roof, which started leaking three years ago, and gaping holes appeared last year. The Murrays tried to stop the leaking during rainstorms by putting blue plastic over the roof, but that only led to gripes from neighbors. A complaint filed with the city Bureau of Development Services says the roof has had a tarp on it for three years, and squirrels run in and out of the holes. A city inspector is due to look at the house this month and could issue a penalty if the Murrays don't fix the problems.

The Murrays have been seeking help from the African American Alliance for Homeownership, a local organization that counsels homeowners on how to avoid foreclosure. It's not clear whether the bank will agree to new terms. "It's kind of like a poker game," counselor Carol Berger says. "The Murrays may have a good hand, but only the dealer knows, and the dealer is Wells Fargo."

Neighbors have started to help. Liz Getty, a real-estate agent and single mother of two who lives across the street from the Murrays, has rounded up a contractor who's agreed to cover the costs of fixing the roof; now she just needs to pull together the building materials, which she thinks will cost about $12,000. "There should be better resources," Getty says. "It shouldn't be this easy to get foreclosed on."

The Murrays both suffer from insomnia, triggered by worry. "You sit up trying to figure things out," says Nelson. "There has to be an answer somehow."

Helen says she wants to live out her life in this house—and if she's forced to move, she says, she couldn't bear returning to the street, even for a visit.

“It would hurt,” Helen says. “Even talking about it now pains me.” 

Intern Sami Edge contributed to this story.