Portland – Gentrification and Displacement

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Case Studies

Powell Division Transit Corridor

New transit service is often sold as attracting development and increasing property values. As transit changes the accessibility of an area, it becomes more attractive for investment. Transit investment leverages development investment of greater than $1 per $1 of transit investment (Hook et al., 2013). The existing literature suggests that new transit investments can create serious affordable housing problems for the very residents who depend most on transit: lower-income households and people of color (Dawkins and Moeckel, 2014). Public investments – sometimes even just the announcement of a planned investment – increase the investment potential of a neighborhood (Golub et al., 2011). A challenge for considering whether a new bus rapid transit (BRT) system will have substantial neighborhood gentrification effects is that most research on this topic is about fixed rail, and there are fewer BRT systems in the U.S.           

The context for this project is the planning of new BRT infrastructure in East Portland, crossing several neighborhoods in different stages of gentrification and some with disproportionately poor residents. Residents and equity advocates were deeply concerned about both the potential to improve transit access in neighborhoods not well connected to service, and also about the possibility that new infrastructure would displace residents from their housing.

This project links up the intended and unintended costs and benefits of new transit investments in diverse communities, particularly those already understood to house many vulnerable populations and to have a high potential for gentrification. We expect that this analysis can help improve our understanding of the transportation access and housing impacts of a new BRT system. As policymakers and scholars increasingly are concerned with equity in transit-oriented development, we can debate whether “the problem” is transportation or housing; this research allows for an assessment of the contribution of individual household demographics and housing status, neighborhood location and market conditions to outcomes. For both transit and housing questions, we ask: How does the new transit service differentially affect specific populations of equity concern? How does the new transit service differentially affect residents of neighborhoods across a spectrum of gentrification risk? How does the new transit service differentially affect these populations depending on which kinds of neighborhoods they live in? 

We approach this analysis from a cumulative impacts standpoint: It is impossible to understand the specific and marginal impacts of the BRT investment on housing and transportation. The improvements in service, the impacts on property markets and rents, and the resulting equity issues from this investment are small compared to the overall dynamics of gentrification and displacement affecting hundreds of households each month. We think this is defensible as it is in the public interest and in the purview of the agencies involved, including Metro and the city of Portland, trying to not worsen an ongoing crisis of housing affordability, displacement and gentrification. Therefore, we zoom out to understand the overall dynamics in the corridor. We do this to ask if there are policy and investment decisions which can be used and leveraged as part of the project to stabilize the corridor.

Southwest Corridor Light Rail Extension
Analysis of Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing market with an equity lens

The vast majority of people and families who are income-eligible for subsidized housing will not receive this limited assistance. Instead, they live in “naturally occurring affordable housing.”  Also referred to as NOAH, naturally occurring affordable housing is the stock of housing that is providing low-cost rental units, but is unsubsidized and unregulated. These market units are affordable because of their condition, age, and location, not due to receiving government subsidies that regulate their rents.  

The shortage of affordable housing becomes more acute in the Portland region, policy-makers and advocates have growing concern about the active market for multifamily properties that currently house thousands of lower-income households. NOAH that is older and in worse condition, especially in redeveloping areas, is considered precarious, or vulnerable to loss from the affordable housing stock. In gentrifying neighborhoods, NOAH buildings can be upgraded or demolished in order to capture the new high-rent demand.

This equity analysis examines the current conditions for multifamily rental housing and its precariousness as “naturally occurring affordable housing.” Larger multifamily buildings that provide NOAH are a potential focus for preservation through subsidy and intervention. This assessment of multifamily housing stocks and market activity in the Portland region, focuses on gentrifying neighborhoods and along newly planned transit lines, will suggest whether there is a viable strategy for preventing residential displacement through a multifamily NOAH preservation program. This analysis couples market data with demographic information. Starting from 2006, the analysis aims to outline the changing pace of multifamily property sales with particular focuses on demographic and spatial analysis of apartment sales.

Portland has some 62,000 apartment units in multifamily buildings that are rated as two or three-star properties (out of five). These units have the most potential for re-grading and investment, particularly if they are in hot neighborhood markets. With increasing market activity in this segment of the market, over 60% of apartments sold in the last decade are in racially diverse and/or low-income tracts. At the same time, even without upgrading, rising rents are squeezing low-income residents.