Group demands restitution ahead of city’s urban renewal vote

Civic Affairs

Portland City Hall will consider expanding indebtedness of Interstate Corridor Urban Renewal Plan to $402 million.

A city block of homes along Russell Street and Williams Avenue was demolished in the 1970s to make way for a planned expansion of Emanuel Hospital, now known as Legacy Emanuel Medical Center, that never happened. (Photo: Jonathan House/Pamplin Media Group)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — When it comes to Portland’s urban renewal projects, the topic stirs emotions for the loss of the many homes and businesses some Black community members experienced in decades past. Some believe a restitution for those losses surrounding the Emanuel Hospital expansion area in North Portland was promised to them by the city, but never given.

The Portland City Council will soon vote on whether to increase funding for an urban renewal project based in inner North/Northeast Portland, where some residents are opposed to the increase in funding because it doesn’t do enough to right historical wrongs.

The measure is an amendment to the Interstate Corridor Urban Renewal Plan, which would increase the tax increment financing by $67 million and bring the total to $402 million. It is expected to be voted on by City Council on Wednesday January 6, 2021.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said during an initial hearing of the measure on December 16, 2020, that the amendment is designed to “increase affordable housing and deliver on community economic development projects that are specifically designed to support Portlanders whose families have been impacted by the city’s past actions, especially Black Portlanders.”

While he acknowledged the historical displacement of hundreds of Black Portlanders from the urban renewal area by the city’s own actions in past decades, the mayor also stated the amendment “is not restorative justice.”

City Council is considering increasing Tax Increment Financing of the Interstate Corridor Urban Renewal Area by $67 million (Prosper Portland).

“It will not and cannot address the harm of the city’s actions over many decades in North and Northeast Portland and the impact, the very real impact, to Portland’s Black community,” Wheeler said. “But I believe the action before us today shows that the city can learn from its past and can make a positive difference on the lives of people who’ve been unjustly harmed.”

About 70% of the increase will go to Portland Housing Bureau, with the other 30% allocated to Prosper Portland, the city’s development commission, officials said.

Two sites owned by the city would be developed for affordable housing units — both in the form of homes-to-buy and rental units. One is located at the corner of N Alberta and Williams, formerly owned by the Strong family (.97 acres), and another is at Carey Boulevard in North Portland (2.93 acres), Portland Housing Bureau Director Shannon Callahan told KOIN 6 News.

“For any project that we’re looking to invest in, we want to make sure that it is aligned with key community priorities and we want to see what that gap is in funding. And so we would look really closely at what the community wants to see at that and see how our resources could support that project,”

-Kimberly Branam, Prosper Portland Executive Director

“We know that the Carey Boulevard site will be developed in a townhome style, like townhome style homeownership,” Callahan said. “But for the Strong property we need to have further conversation with the community about what type of mix unit housing — meaning rental homeownership — would be desirable.” 

Up to $10-15 million of that $67 million increase in tax increment financing could also be made available to help develop the site of the long vacant block near N Russell and Williams, Prosper Portland’s Executive Director Kimberly Branam told KOIN 6 News.

At least a portion of the Russell and Williams site will be dedicated to some affordable housing units, while much of what else may be included at the site is still yet-to-be-determined by a community-led working group.

“For any project that we’re looking to invest in, we want to make sure that it is aligned with key community priorities and we want to see what that gap is in funding. And so we would look really closely at what the community wants to see at that and see how our resources could support that project,” Branam said.

Group says amendment doesn’t do enough to address legacy of displacement

The Emanuel Displaced Persons Association 2 (EDPA2) is made up of survivors and descendants of families who say they were forcibly removed to accommodate the Emanuel Hospital expansion, an urban renewal project which razed many homes in Portland’s Albina district. However a central block of homes and businesses in the historically majority-Black area at Russell and Williams was never replaced with the planned hospital expansion due to federal funding drying up. A vacant lot now serves as a reminder to those community members of what they lost.

The Russell and Williams site was recently added to the Interstate Tax-Increment Finance District, Branam said. Once owned by Legacy Health, the block was donated back to the city for the purpose of community development.

The 1.7 acre lot was part of an area that the City of Portland and its Portland Development Commission (now called Prosper Portland) condemned. The urban renewal action subsequently displaced 171 families, 74 percent of which were African American, according to Prosper Portland’s website

A pedestrian walks along a vacant city lot near Russell Street and Williams Avenue in North Portland (Jonathan House/Pamplin Media Group).

The site was purchased by Emanuel Hospital (now Legacy Health) from Portland Development Commission and the hospital acquired additional properties from individual owners in order to expand its campus.

In 1971, members of the original Emanuel Displaced Person Association, Emanuel Hospital, the Model Cities Citizens’ Planning Board and multiple City of Portland agencies, including Housing Authority of Portland and Portland Development Commission, signed the Emanuel Replacement Housing Agreement. The agreement stated:

“That the parties agree to cooperate in the development of the aforedescribed area within the Emanuel Hospital Urban Renewal Project with approximately 180 to 300 units of Federally-assisted low and moderate income housing, including public housing, and complementary residential and supportive use…”

The agreement also mentions “all of the parties will cooperate in providing Federally-assisted housing to achieve the goal of replacing all existing housing units demolished as a result of the Emanuel Hospital Urban Renewal Project with not less than an equal number of newly-constructed standard housing units located within the Project area or as near as possible to the Project Area and all within the Model Cities area.”

“We can either do this differently or we can continue along the path that got us here. And the assertion that this is not ‘restorative’…we only have one option left. We’re going to continue the racist pattern that got us here.”

-Byrd, EDPA2 Co-Founder

Members of EDPA2 are seeking “an adherence to and enforcement of the federal restitution agreement and the relocation housing policy that the city passed directly related to the Emanuel Hospital expansion. And that is a one-to-one housing replacement for every home that was demolished,” explained a co-founder of the group, Byrd, who only goes by one name.

From Byrd’s perspective, that agreement was never fulfilled.

“We can either do this differently or we can continue along the path that got us here. And the assertion that this is not ‘restorative’…we only have one option left. We’re going to continue the racist pattern that got us here,” Byrd said.

Branam said the 180-300 housing units promised from the agreement were not constructed in a timely manner, nor with the federal funds originally anticipated. But she said the city has provided in excess that amount in affordable housing units in that general area since then, from subsequent projects. 

“Since the creation of the Interstate Tax Increment Finance District, the Portland Housing Bureau has helped create 2,457 new affordable units within inner N/NE. In the immediate N/NE area surrounding Legacy Emanuel, Home Forward provides 257 affordable units at Dawson Park, Unthank Plaza, Eliot Square, Maple Mallory, and the Beech Street Apartments,” Prosper Portland said in a letter back in May, co-signed by Branam and chair Gustavo J. Cruz, Jr., written in apparent response to concerns raised by EDPA2.

It was also stated in the 1971 agreement that those displaced would receive assistance in the type and location of the housing they would move to and that they would receive a monetary compensation for being relocated under the Real Property Acquisition Policies Act of 1970.

Branam said she believes those relocation assistance payments were distributed to people, but that Prosper Portland is currently confirming the records on that.

Byrd said the relocation assistance payments are a “separate issue” than the one-to-one housing replacement portion of the agreement. However she said some people received the payments while others did not and that they were not “automatic” but something for which you had to apply.

Liz Fouther-Branch, another member of EDPA2, said some people were not offered those payments or any type of restitution. 

A plot near N Russell and Williams in North Portland is one of three development sites that would help to get funded for urban renewal from an amendment to add $67 million of Tax Increment Financing for the Interstate Corridor Urban Renewal Area (Prosper Portland).

“They weren’t offered,” said Gloria Cash, speaking about her parents that were displaced from the Emanuel expansion but not given a relocation assistance payment. “In my heart-felt knowing, they were frightened away before there was any offer.”

Branam said, upon consultation with lawyers, it is not possible to use Increment Tax Financing dollars for direct restitution payments to individuals or descendants of individuals who have been displaced by past urban renewal actions.

However Byrd said the limitations of what ITF can be used for is not an excuse for the City Council to not explore what other options there are to distribute such funds. 

“That is not the only money that this city can tap into,” Byrd said.

The opportunity to increase the urban renewal dollars for the area is also finite, with the window of opportunity running out in about a year and a half, Callahan said.

To that point, Byrd said members in her group have waited decades for their restitution to come.

“We don’t want there to be a EDPA3. And if it is, we want them to be skipping all the way to the bank. We’ve already waited more than 40 years.”

A statement of support asking the city to honor restitution for victims of displacement and their descendants was co-signed by 15 members of EDPA2, which includes Sharon Gary-Smith, the current President of Portland’s NAACP. 170 other community members also co-signed the statement.

During the Dec. 16 public testimony, about 30 people were signed up to speak, including Byrd. Some people who work in the real estate field also gave testimony in favor of the restitutions.

EDPA2 will be re-broadcasting a Zoom event they hosted called “The City and Prosper Portland Get Paid, The Black Community Gets Play,” on Monday, January 4, 2021 at 7 p.m. The original Zoom event had over 400 registrants, Byrd said. A link to the rebroadcast event page can be found here.

Affordable housing units to be filled based on preference policy

As part of their North/Northeast Portland Housing Strategy, and informed by a community-led oversight committee, Portland Housing Bureau developed a preference policy to address the harmful impacts of past urban renewal actions. Under the policy, priority placement of applicants for rental housing or home ownership opportunities are given to those who were displaced, at risk of displacement, or who are descendants of households that were displaced due to urban renewal in North and Northeast Portland. This policy would apply to the new affordable housing units that would be created from the increased urban renewal financing brought from the amendment, Callahan said.

Dr. Steven Holt, Chair of the North/Northeast Housing Strategy Oversight Committee, spoke about why the group endorses the amendment during its first hearing before Council in December. 

“I had no idea the significance of home security in my family. It altered how my kids felt. It altered how they saw themselves. It gave them a different experience of security and stability and belonging in place.”

-Dr. Steven holt, Chair of the N/NE Housing Strategy Oversight Committee

“We without hesitation voted 100% to advance this. This whole amendment comes out of the passion of the oversight committee,” Holt said. “And the desire is, as stated already, to benefit, generationally, people who have been kept from this community.”

Holt said he has personal experience of the importance of home ownership, with him and his family having only been able to afford renting in Portland for years, until 1999 when they were able to finally buy a home.

“I had no idea the significance of home security in my family. It altered how my kids felt. It altered how they saw themselves. It gave them a different experience of security and stability and belonging in place,” he said.

Holt said the oversight committee gave a strong recommendation on the amendment in hopes it can help other families enhance their lives, too. He said it’s only a beginning and that “there’s still much more that needs to be done.”

Tony Hopson Sr. also spoke before the City Council in December, as a member of the Williams and Russell Project Working Group, whose members were selected by other community members and is focused on identifying what should happen at the block. The group will be developing a request for proposals related to the site, Branam said.

Hopson is also well known as a community leader and Executive Director of Self Enhancement Inc. He said after decades of pressure identifying the egregious actions by Legacy Emanuel and the city to displace hundreds of Black families out of the lower Albina area, there’s now an opportunity to “right some of the wrongs from our racist past.”

FILE – In this June 19, 2020, file photo, Katrina Hendricks, left, pushes a stroller holding her son, Melo, as her mother, Elaine Loving, walks alongside her at a Juneteenth rally and march through a historically Black neighborhood in Portland, Ore. Loving, who has lived in the same house in North Portland for 59 years, said the historically Black neighborhood where violent protests have erupted has changed dramatically because of white gentrification. She said despite Portland’s liberal and progressive reputation and the weeks of sustained protests for racial justice, the white neighbors “don’t even speak to us half the time, and that hurts.” (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus, File)

Hopson said the Russell and Williams project might provide jobs, opportunities and hopefully affordable housing for Black people to take advantage of. 

“I think especially for those who’ve been pushed out to the numbers and other places, hopefully it’ll provide an opportunity for some of them to return,” he said.

While Hopson believes the city should move forward on the amendment, he said the city should also recognize the irreplaceable loses and millions of dollars of lost generational wealth that would’ve been accumulated by Black families’ home ownership because of past urban renewal projects.

“Hopefully the City Council is ready to move forward on this and we can get some movement on these projects,” Hopson said. “But still, there are quite a few victims out there that are still left out and I still think there’s some work to be done on that.” 

Branam acknowledged that urban renewal was a tool used in incredibly damaging ways, not just in Portland but across the country, when it rolled out in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. It took aim at largely immigrant or Black or other inner city neighborhoods and basically leveled them, “a terrible practice,” she said.

But Branam said the urban renewal of today is “a radically different application than it once was.”

“Our City Council is very supportive of us using Tax Increment Finance resources to mitigate displacement, not to promote displacement. To help people stay in their homes, not to help us raze homes,” she said.

Callahan added that those old urban renewal agreements from the 1950s to the ’70s never contemplated affordable housing, a distinction of modern urban renewal plans.

“I think it’s really important to note that the resources that we’re talking about right now, 70%, are dedicated to the creation of affordable rental and homeownership. And that is a significant change, not just in the last 50 years, but in the last 5 years.”

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