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A Case Study in Gentrification: Oregon's Albina Neighborhood
June 21, 2021

A Case Study in Gentrification: Oregon's Albina Neighborhood

by The CE Shop Team

Albina’s Diverse Community Is Dwindling

Portland’s Albina neighborhood once housed nearly 80% of Black Oregonians. Between discriminatory housing practices, aggressive urban planning, and the practice of gentrification, that figure has declined by more than half. Here’s a brief history of this historic neighborhood, as well as some of the more contemporary events that fundamentally changed its makeup.

Albina’s Rich History

Albina's Rich History

The Albina neighborhood, nestled in Northeast Portland, has a long and diverse history stretching back to the 1800s. It originally consisted mostly of European immigrants employed at the docks and shipyards but, in the early 1900s, Black Oregonians began moving in to gain proximity to these same jobs. With a growing Black population in Albina, nearby discriminatory White neighborhoods responded with strict rules and regulations including redlining and racial steering, effectively cordoning off Albina and Albina alone for Black homeownership. 

By the 1950s, Albina’s Black population exceeded 20,000 people. Culture and community were built around Williams Avenue, where Black entrepreneurs could open businesses, eateries, and retail spaces. The neighborhood housed a whopping 80% of Portland’s Black population in its heyday, and it bustled with activity, community, and culture.

Unfortunately, and despite this burgeoning cultural hub, the Portland Development Commission declared the neighborhood blighted in 1962. Landlords facilitated mass evictions, land was quickly sold off, and beloved and historic buildings were demolished. Not long after, Highways I-5 and 99 forced their way through the neighborhood, further disrupting and displacing local residents. By the 1970s, more than half of Albina’s Black residents had been forced out. Portland officials soon picked up the practice of gentrification, which was gaining traction across the country. 

What Is Gentrification?

Gentrification, simply put, is the process of wealthier homebuyers purchasing in traditionally poor urban areas — either due to a shortage of housing, changes in economic opportunity, or social reasons — thus attracting new types of businesses and other wealthy individuals to the area. As a result, the characteristics of the neighborhood change, and established residents are forced out by rising rents and taxes. 

In the case of Albina, attractive loans were offered to incoming residents and business owners, who were drawn by the historic charm of the remaining architecture, centralized location, and low prices, which were largely uncharacteristic of Portland even then. Home values increased by three or four times, which begs one question.

Can Gentrification Be a Good Thing? 

Of course, there are pros and cons to most evolutions, and many people question if this movement is simply the way of the world. Prices rise in desirable neighborhoods, and those who can afford to move in will, right? 

“That's the feeling people seem to express: ‘That's just the way the world works,’” said urban studies expert Matt Hern, who recently wrote a book detailing Albina's gentrification. “It creates this environment of fear and selfishness that people have to look out for their own, because no one's looking out for them.” Not only does this concept come in stark contrast to the generally caring and compassionate reputation that precedes the city of Portland, but certain demographics are almost always disproportionately impacted by gentrification.

In Albina specifically, those rapidly rising home prices that benefitted the primarily White incoming residents and business owners pushed long-time Black families out. Albina’s Black population, which still hovered near 70% in the ‘90s, sat at just 28% in 2010. 

Why Oregon Agents Should Care About Gentrification

If Albina is any indication, Black homebuyers need your help. A December 2019 report from a local task force revealed that Black Oregonians make up the smallest percentage of homeowners at a lower-than-average 32.2%, which is half the rate of White Oregonian homeownership (65.5%). That low figure is due largely to the racially biased housing and lending laws that predate the Fair Housing Act and the real-estate-driven multi-generational wealth accrual from which many racial minorities have been historically barred.

Homeownership should be for everyone and, as an agent, promoting equity is a big part of your job. You can further educate yourself on the background of gentrification, champion historical architecture in diverse neighborhoods, and even volunteer in Albina to learn more about the neighborhood’s history and culture. After all, promoting diversity in homeownership will take all of us!

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