Illustration by Ryan Alexander-Tanner

TRUST IS DIFFICULT to regain once it's been lost—whether that sundering came in one fell, foul swoop or merely over several decades, a series of half-promises never more than half-kept.

Consider North and Northeast Portland and the plight of the city's African American community.

First, city leaders gutted traditional neighborhoods around North Williams and in what became the Rose Quarter, creating blight in the name of fighting it. And then Portland City Council kept promising to right those wrongs—drafting an Albina Community Plan in 1993 and creating an urban renewal area around the Interstate corridor—only to do relatively little while redevelopment made displacement worse.

(Curiously, the two current council members most tied to development issues, Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Dan Saltzman, were both on the council when the Interstate zone was crafted. Hales, meanwhile, served during formation of the Albina plan.)

This history is why it was such a big deal when Hales—looking to end a fight over a Trader Joe's at NE MLK and Alberta—grabbed $20 million in urban renewal cash that would have been spent on other things (like improving North Lombard and developing businesses), and earmarked it for affordable housing.

That history also looms over what comes next, now that the promise has been made.

Starting on Thursday, September 18, the Portland Housing Bureau began a series of four community forums, filled with food and charts, meant to remind everyone about that history and tell officials how that repurposed housing money ought to be spent.

But the first such session—a riveting, bracing affair—wasn't held anywhere near Albina or MLK. It was out at Highland Christian Center, at NE 76th and Glisan—in what's become an anchor for many who have been forced from their old neighborhoods.

Fittingly, it was also where the housing bureau, overseen by Saltzman, unveiled a central storyline in its hopes for how that $20 million will be spent. It's building momentum for a "right of return" for at least some of the thousands of African Americans scattered east and north by gentrification.

That's a noble goal. But it also threatens to raise expectations impossibly high.

The city's own charts show that $20 million won't go terribly far: maybe 300 to 500 new apartments, or 100 single-family homes. For rent. It would go furthest if spent rehabbing houses—1,500 of them—but that's more about retaining residents, the charts say, not bringing them back. (That route might also mean some brisk business for one of the presenters at the forum, Maxine Fitzpatrick of Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives, Inc.)

That's not the only complication. The city has pledged to spend the $20 million on housing for those making 60 percent of median income or less. The gentrifiers, dare I say it, might shed their Portland passive-aggression when faced with the return of the lowest income of the gentrified. Some of the people who spoke at Highland openly fretted over the possibility they might not be welcomed.

And what of the other qualities that make up a community? The institutions that grew up around African American neighborhoods—bars, eateries, medical offices, barbershops, increasingly churches—have all vanished, too.

"This one will be different," said Bishop Steven Holt of the International Fellowship Family, "because we have different people engaged and involved. There's a different intentionality."

Holt's correct about the "different intentionality"—the engaging, honest forums are proof of that. But as for the result—a rebuilt trust? That still remains to be seen.