As wages fail to keep pace with rising housing costs, low-income Portlanders of all backgrounds are being pushed out of desirable close-in neighborhoods where they could have afforded to live five or 10 years ago. The generic term for that population movement is “displacement.” But that term doesn’t describe the experience of the more than 10,000 African-American residents who left North/Northeast Portland over the past three decades.
Portland’s black community never had a stable home — kicked from west side to east side, squeezed and torn apart by urban renewal — but since the late 1800s, it always existed somewhere. Not anymore. The recent scattering of black residents to distant parts of the city and suburbs, which reduced North/Northeast Portland’s black population by roughly half since 1990, is a “diaspora,” a population movement that disintegrates an entire cultural community.
Recently, the population of homeless African-Americans in Multnomah County has spiked, growing by 48 percent from 2013 to 2015. African-Americans represented 24 percent of the county’s estimated homeless population in 2015, yet made up only 7 percent of the county’s population. (Results from the county’s 2017 biennial homeless street count are anticipated to be released in mid-June).
While the disparate impact of Portland’s housing crisis on African-American residents gets scant attention, the causes of the black community’s high vulnerability to displacement and homelessness are discussed even less.
Low incomes are one factor: The median income for black households in Portland is roughly $27,000 (compared to $57,000 for white households); a median-priced two-bedroom apartment in North Portland’s Interstate Corridor would eat up nearly 80 percent of those funds each month.
But local and national experts who study race, poverty and housing insecurity point to another probable source of the problem: a yawning racial wealth gap created, in large part, by a history of policies and practices that have systematically excluded African-Americans from opportunities to own homes.
That wealth gap, originating in the slavery era, has widened dramatically in the past 30-plus years. One landmark study, which tracked 75,000 American households over three decades, found that the average net assets of black families rose from less than $10,000 in 1984 to $14,500 in 2013. White families’ wealth, during that same time, rose from $84,000 to $260,000.
Homeownership is the vehicle through which most American families build financial assets and pass them down to their children; low homeownership rates are both cause and consequence of black Americans’ low net worth.
While little data exists to directly compare the wealth of blacks and whites in Portland, 2015 American Community Survey results show a stark racial imbalance in homeownership rates: The estimated homeownership rate for African-American-headed households is 27 percent, slightly less than half that of white-headed households.
What’s more, the estimated homeownership rate for Portland’s black households dropped sharply, by more than 10 percentage points, from 2000 to 2015.