The Meaning of Home

A new conversation series looks at the far-reaching effects of Portland’s housing crisis.

Tojo Andrianarivo

Like many West Coast cities, Portland is in the grips of a housing crisis. Rapid population growth, a shortage of houses and apartments, and skyrocketing rents and home prices are forcing many Portlanders to scramble to keep roofs over their heads. And according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, almost four thousand people are experiencing homelessness in Multnomah County.

A new, yearlong series of public conversations called We Call This Home seeks to expand the discussion about the housing crisis to include broader issues of wealth disparity, race, and home ownership in the region. 

The series, which launched in January, is presented by the Portland Housing Center (PHC), the Agora Journalism Center at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, City Club of Portland, EcoNorthwest, Neighborhood Partnerships, North Star Civic Foundation, and Oregon Humanities.

Felicia Tripp, deputy director of PHC, says, “Portland Housing Center has helped low-income families save and get ready to buy homes in Portland for twenty-five years. But in the last few years this dream has become totally out of reach. The cost of a first-time home is too high. And what does that mean for our city—will only wealthy and white people be able to live here?”

One of the first We Call This Home events, an Oregon Humanities Think & Drink conversation with Rhea Combs of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gwen Carr of Oregon Black Pioneers, and Melissa Lowery, director of the documentary Black Girl in Suburbia, explored the effects of discriminatory housing policies and wealth inequality on identity and belonging in Oregon’s Black communities.

“There’s a quote on the wall at the [National Museum of African American History and Culture] by Maya Angelou that says everyone longs for that place and that space where they can feel safe and not feel questioned,” Combs, a former Portland resident who now curates film and photography for the museum, said at the event. “For some people that may be church, or it may be as simple as being able to know where to get your hair done. These are the things that allow people to feel that they are not being questioned and that they belong.” 

Lowery, who grew up in the Clackamas County suburb of West Linn, said that sense of belonging has become harder to come by in Portland. 

“The difference between the ’80s and now is that then there was a community of Black people. Everybody lived in Northeast,” she said. “Now, not so much. You have to go to the Numbers, you have to go to Vancouver, you have to go over to the West Side. We’re spread out.” (“The Numbers” refers to neighborhoods of Portland and Gresham east of I-205.)

A significant cause of the scattering Lowery describes is the cost of housing. The crisis of unaffordability disproportionately affects people of color, says Caitlin Baggott, the executive director of North Star Civic Foundation and one of the organizers of We Call This Home. 

“The wealth gap between the average white family and average family of color is $500,000. That is basically the value of a house. If our community can’t address this inequity, I don’t think we make much progress in overcoming our history of inequality, period.” 

Upcoming We Call This Home conversations presented with City Club of Portland, Oregon Humanities, and Literary Arts will dig further into inequality in the region, the effects of rising unaffordability for families and communities, and the future of Portland’s urban development. The series will continue through July 14, concluding with a conference for housing and home-ownership advocates, urban planning professionals, and elected leaders to explore desired outcomes for the region.

Visit callthishomeconversations.com to learn more about the series and to see maps that illustrate how affordable homes have receded from the center of the Portland metro region between 2000 and 2015.

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