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SARAH YEOMAN

The Portland City Council voted Wednesday to amend a controversial earthquake safety ordinance.

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Polyrhythmics with Mesitzo Beat at Aladdin Theater on November 22

The original ordinance, passed in October, requires owners of unreinforced masonry buildings (URMs)—old brick buildings that would be lethal in the event of an earthquake—to place signs alerting occupants of their danger and notify tenants about it.

The cost to seismically upgrade a URM can range from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, and many URM owners are independent businesses or individuals who say they can't afford that cost without a loan. The original ordinance also required those URM owners to sign an enforcement agreement that many opponents said would have put an encumbrance on the property title—potentially devaluing the property and making it difficult to finance a loan.

There’s been debate among city commissioners and other stakeholders as to whether that encumbrance exists and what its implications might be. But the amendment passed Wednesday eliminated it, and also pushed back the ordinance’s enforcement date from this March to November 2020.

“I’ve heard some real wild conspiracy theories as I’ve worked through this process, and … I thought it was important to do my own due diligence,” said Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who introduced the new ordinance, at Wednesday’s council meeting. “I feel I have an obligation to slow the process down.”

The original ordinance drew opposition from a coalition that includes the NAACP of Portland, Portland Tenants United, Music Portland, and other groups. That coalition has indicated that they would prefer the ordinance be repealed, rather than amended. But Hardesty said she hopes to work “many impacted communities” during the delay in enforcement, so they can come up with a compromise and a plan to help finance structural improvements to URMs.

It's unclear how those improvements could be publicly financed, though the city council does back a bill currently in the Oregon Legislature that would fund URM seismic upgrades across Oregon. The city is convening a new URM work group that might look into other financing options.

“I hope we’re able to come back with a proposal that we can get all the city council to get behind,” Hardesty said.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz called the concerns about a possible title encumbrance “an absolute disgusting amount of misinformation,” though she noted that she does “support removing the recording requirement, particularly since it was so mis-messaged.”

Commissioner Chloe Eudaly called the debate around the URMs, which has embroiled council meetings since last summer, “one of the most frustrating, fruitless conversations that I have had in my last two years on city council.” She and Commissioner Nick Fish both declined to vote on the first ordinance in October, despite being present for that council meeting.

“We have yet to achieve clarity, but we really need to,” Eudaly said. “There are no easy answers.”

Fish said that while the risk URMs pose in the event of an earthquake are clear, he was grateful for the opportunity the delay would give the city to further engage the Black faith community, independent businesses, and “mom and pop” landlords, all of whom would be particularly impacted by the new policy.

“The unintended consequences of our otherwise laudable action could lead to disastrous consequences,” he said about the original ordinance.

Mayor Ted Wheeler was absent from Wednesday’s meeting, but voiced his support for Hardesty’s changes at last week’s council meeting.