Nicolle Farup
IN MID-NOVEMBER, someone spray-painted messages on stop signs along Alberta Street in NE Portland. The first sign, in dripping white letters set off against red, reads: "Stop Gentrification." The next sign clarifies this message. It reads: "Stop Whitie."

Like many growing cities, in Portland gentrification has become a code word for large-scale displacement of working-class African American, Latino and white families by wealthier--primarily white--homeowners. The neighborhoods that fan off Alberta Street have the most diverse ethnic mix in the city. But, according to data compiled in 1997 by Portland State University, these are also the neighborhoods with the fewest homeowners. With 50% of the houses in the Concordia, Albina and Sabin neighborhoods owned by the current residents, the ratio of home ownership in Northeast Portland trails nearly 25% below the average throughout the rest of the city.

Robert Larry, owner of King Liquor, believes that this specific issue of home ownership is at the center of the gentrification tug-of-war. With one half of the current residents renting, the population and character of these neighborhoods sits in a tenuous position--vulnerable to ad hoc evictions when rent increases begin to outpace wages. In response, the local chapter of the NAACP has formed a "gentrification task force." With Larry as a co-chair, they have begun to examine possible ways to keep homes in the hands of the current residents and, consequently, shore up the walls against gentrification.

But identifying the troubling issue has proven easier than fingering the culprit. Accusing incoming homeowners of gentrification is like pointing to a foot soldier and blaming him for the war. Instead, the NAACP and some residents have turned their attention to the city's Community Development Corporations (CDC), a collection of several nonprofit organizations that primarily work with housing issues.

"The role of the CDCs should be to create home ownership," says Larry, "not to be property managers." Combined, the four major CDCs that operate in Northeast Portland own roughly one out of every twenty homes throughout those neighborhoods. The majority of these apartments and homes are available at below-market rates to low-income applicants.

While Larry agrees that such programs have value--providing shelter to financially struggling families--he worries that too much focus has been placed on maintaining these properties as rental units and not enough energy on converting them into homes owned by the current residents. Programs that provide assistance with down payments and low-interest rate loans could be a major step towards transforming renters into owners, Larry believes.

Bob Durston, chief of staff for City Council representative Erik Sten, emphasizes that the question of the ownership of Northeast Portland's neighborhood is teetering. Council member Sten serves as the pointperson for housing issues in the city. With tens of thousands of dollars in grant money passing through City Hall, Sten holds considerable sway in the debate over what to do with property throughout the city. But Durston worries that turning the house and apartments owned by CDCs loose on the free market would only accelerate gentrification.

"It is a difficult balance," says Durston. "How to liquidate housing stock to residents within the community without becoming fodder for gentrification?" The price for many of these homes, points out Durston, would be out of the reach for current residents.

Maxine Fitzpatrick, executive director for Portland Community Reinvestment Initiative (PCRI), concurs with Durston that the foremost role of the CDCs should be to provide ongoing rentals. In 1990, PCRI took over 350 homes from a failing property management company. Since then, PCRI has served primarily as a landlord in Northeast Portland. Of that original housing stock, less than one third has been converted from rentals into property owned by the residents.

Of the current 260 renters, Fitzpatrick believes that only 10 families could actually afford to purchase these homes. "We are providing an opportunity for residents to stay in those neighborhoods," Maxine concludes.