Portland NAACP leaders, renters rights groups and music advocates are sounding the alarm over what they say is a “stealth” attempt to undermine local property owners who live or work in older brick buildings.
The groups held a news conference outside City Hall on Saturday morning to demand the city rescind an ordinance, which affects about 1,600 unreinforced masonry buildings, requiring owners post a sign warning of the building’s dangers in the event of a major earthquake.
The Rev. E.D. Mondainé, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Portland chapter and pastor at Celebration Tabernacle Church in Kenton, tied what the city maintains is just a requirement to help notify the public to the region’s long history of racist policies that have led to gentrification and displacement for African Americans.
Mondainé said the black community in Portland has been told many times in the past not to worry.
“We will no longer allow the same tactics,” Mondainé said, citing Oregon’s explicit policy at its origin excluding blacks from living here, the Portland area’s assurances to black residents ahead of the Vanport flood and the long history of red-lining and discrimination in housing policies in inner North and Northeast Portland. “We will no longer allow the same principles that have driven us out again,” he said, with a crowd of supporters behind him, “We will no longer allow these things to remove us from our community. We want action. “
The City Council in October approved the ordinance, which Bureau of Development Services officials say is just about providing better awareness for tenants, visitors and occupants at the buildings.
Public buildings affected by the rules were to install signage by this week. Nonprofit organizations, like churches, have until 2020 to comply. Most other building owners have until March 1 to comply.
Speakers at the Saturday rally railed against the city’s ordinance, calling it a “secret lien” that would force landowners to ultimately sell to well-heeled private developers and lose out on loans or other financial services which would allow them to update their building to meet safety requirements.
Alex Cousins, a spokesman for the city’s Bureau of Development Services, said “nothing” in the ordinance “attaches an encumbrance or lien” to the building’s title.
“The declaration is not a lien and does not compel any retrofitting on the part of the building owner,” he said in an email.
Meara McLaughlin, executive director of the MusicPortland advocacy group, cautioned the ordinance “threatens the existence” of bars like Kelly’s Olympian and the McMenamin’s White Eagle, which often cater to hip-hop artists.
The advocates agreed with the city that the ordinance doesn’t explicitly mention a lien, but they said the city there’s “a separate non-negotiable and compulsory agreement” that puts an encumbrance on the land owner’s title.
“Without a lawyer in the room you won’t even get a semblance of what’s being done,” Mondainé said in an interview after the news conference, “it’s so convoluted and it’s gone in so many different directions that it doesn’t have a real shape or form anymore. It’s like a runaway train.” They argue the policy will force artificially low sales prices for properties in gentrifying parts of town and lead to businesses being devalued. It will make it more difficult to refinance, get a loan or lease the building, they argue, likening it to a “Scarlet Letter>”
The city said its database of unreinforced masonry buildings has existed since 1995 “and has been known to building owners, lenders and insurers for over two decades.”
The city said its Bureaus of Emergency Management and Development Services will set up an advisory committee this year “to work with the Portland NAACP and other stakeholders on collaborative ways to implement” the retrofitting program in the city “We look forward to working with community members and building owners to make our city safer in the event of a large earthquake.”
Mondainé said the city has made some attempts “that perhaps are promising” to engage the black community, but he is still calling for the ordinance to be rescinded.
— Andrew Theen
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