NAACP Portland chapter President E. D. Mondainé speaks at a rally outside Portland City Hall Saturday morning.
NAACP Portland chapter President E. D. Mondainé speaks at a rally outside Portland City Hall Saturday morning. BLAIR STENVICK

A coalition led by the Portland chapter of the NAACP held a rally outside Portland City Hall Saturday morning to draw attention to an ordinance that requires older brick buildings to be labeled as not earthquake-safe. The coalition believes that the ordinance places an unfair burden on building owners affected by the ordinance—many of whom are people of color.

The ordinance specifically targets unreinforced masonry buildings, or URMs, the first buildings to collapse in the event of a major earthquake. It requires that these buildings—about 1,600 altogether—have an 8-by-10-inch plaque stating: "This is an unreinforced masonry building. Unreinforced masonry buildings may be unsafe in the event of a major earthquake."

The Portland City Council voted on the ordinance, which also requires the earthquake-unsafe information to be mentioned in all future building leases, last October. It will go into effect on March 1.

The NAACP-led coalition argues that such requirements place a "Scarlet Letter" on older Portland buildings, including many Black-owned businesses, music venues, and churches, and will make it difficult for owners to lease, refinance, or mortgage their buildings. The coalition also includes Portland Tenants United, MusicPortland, Save Portland Buildings, and Portland Assembly.

In an energetic speech to kick off the rally, NAACP Portland chapter President E. D. Mondainé talked about the new ordinance in the context of Portland's broader racial history. He mentioned Vanport, the largely Black community that was created by discriminatory real estate practices and wiped away in a 1948 flood under suspicious circumstances, and suggested that the URM ordinance was a continuation of racist policies.

Meara McLaughlin, executive director of MusicPortland, also spoke at the rally. MusicPortland is a trade association and advocacy group for local independent music venues, and McLaughlin warned that the URM labeling policy could endanger up to 30 percent of the city's live concert venues.

"I'm here to speak about the social costs of this placarding ordinance," McLaughlin said. "If you lose one third of our live music activity in the city, that is a death knell."

At a press conference last week, newly sworn-in City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty criticized the already-voted on city ordinance.

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"Putting a plaque on a faith institution basically closes that faith institution. It closes that community center. It closes that school," said Hardesty, who is the former president of the Portland NAACP chapter. "Because who is going to go into a building if there’s a plaque on it that says, ‘Oh, by the way this is going to fall down if there’s an earthquake'?

Hardesty said that while supports buildings being reinforced to sustain a major earthquake, she doesn't back a city mandate that lacks financial assistance for those who can't afford upgrades.

"It should be safe for everyone," she said. "It shouldn’t just be safe for people who can afford the reinforcements."