When Brian Morris recalls his early childhood years in Northeast Portland's Albina neighborhood, he remembers a sense of belonging.
"I was just a kid, but it seemed like I knew everyone in the neighborhood... we were all family," Morris, now in his 50s, told the Mercury Wednesday. "It was a safe place. I would walk from my house on NE Fargo down to visit my grandfather at his tavern [on NE Russell] by myself, and it wouldn't be an issue. It was a community that looked out for each other."
But Morris, like thousands of other Black Portlanders who called Albina home in the late 1960s, had that community pulled out from under him in 1971, when the city of Portland razed the neighborhood to make way for the expansion of Emanuel Hospital, now Legacy Emanuel Medical Center. Despite organized opposition from the majority Black neighborhood, the city declared the area "blighted," and used the power of eminent domain to transfer 55 acres of largely private property to the hospital in the name of "urban renewal."
Morris was 8 years old when his entire family lost their homes to the hospital's bulldozers. They also lost their family's main source of income, his grandparent's neighborhood bar.
"It hurt the family, a lot of my aunts and uncles worked there," said Morris, who now lives in a downtown Portland apartment supplemented by federal rent assistance. "We all struggled financially after that. It wasn't easy to recover from. I don't think we ever recovered, really. It's still traumatizing."
It's this kind of multigenerational economic insecurity and trauma—directly caused by the hospital's takeover—that the city has spent decades attempting to repair through urban renewal funds, which provide financial support to small businesses, affordable housing programs, and other community projects in the neighborhoods that surround Legacy Emanuel and Interstate-5. At the same time, the city's investment in these neighborhoods have sent property costs skyrocketing, making home ownership and even tenancy nearly impossible for the financially strained Portlanders who were initially displaced from the area.
"I think time is demanding that we do something different."
On Wednesday, Portland City Commissioners discussed expanding this funding ask by $67 million to build more affordable housing in North and Northeast Portland. For the city, it's an attempt to undo the decades of forced displacement and gentrification in the area. But for Morris and others still suffering the impact from the city's mass displacement, it's not enough to make up for the decades of lost growth.
"I think time is demanding that we do something different," said Byrd, Morris' cousin and community activist, speaking to commissioners Wednesday. Byrd, who goes by only one name, is the co-founder of Emanuel Displaced Persons Association 2 (EDPA2), a group asking the city to prioritize direct restitution for the Black families it forcibly displaced in the early '70s before approving more funding.
EDPA2 (named after a 1970s Portland group with the same acronym and mission) says the city has neglected to follow through on a 1971 agreement by the city to create "low to moderate" income housing for each family displaced by the hospital development. [Read that agreement here.]
Kimberly Branam, director of the city's urban development bureau Prosper Portland, says that the promised "180 to 300" affordable housing units promised in that agreement have already been created—and then some. According to Branam, the city's developed at least 2,000 affordable units in North and Northeast Portland over the past several decades.
Byrd said her family and others directly displaced from the former Albina neighborhood (now called the Boise-Eliot neighborhood) weren't offered those housing options. Even if they were, she added, she doesn't believe it would be a fair replacement.
"The affordable housing the city's created are apartment buildings," Byrd told the Mercury in an interview. "These families owned homes with backyards, not micro-condos."
On Wednesday, Portland Housing Bureau (PHB) Director Shannon Callahan said that the proposed $67 million in funds would go towards building 350 new affordable homes—both to own and rent—on currently empty lots.
Yet several members of the public questioned Wednesday how this plan would result in multigenerational wealth for the displaced families.
"Replacing homes with affordable housing is one of the sad ideals that does provide people a place to live, but does nothing for their future," said Destiny Houston, one of the 30 Portlanders who testified on the proposal during the council meeting. "And I wonder, when that area is developed, how much money will the city and developers get from that land? Whose futures will be secured? Whose savings accounts will it grow? Whose children will benefit?"
Others pressed commissioners to consider financial reparations instead of another allocation of public dollars to housing developers.
"This plan will clearly provide benefit and some very important work has been done, [but] it does not directly restore past harms... harms that must be repaired," said Portlander Benjamin Barnett. "The homes and businesses cannot be returned, but there can be financial restitution, there can be actual material resources paid which can begin to restore to those families what is rightfully theirs."
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty mentioned this specific request later in the meeting, and asked Prosper Portland's Branam if the urban renewal funds being considered could be used to compensate displaced individuals.
"We do need to have a conversation about reparations. This is not that."
"Attorneys have advised me that we cannot use these dollars for restitution payment," Branam answered, adding that they are reserved for capital improvements, grants, loans, and commercial development. With this clarity, Hardesty said she plans on supporting the $67 million housing proposal when it comes before council for a final vote in January 2021.
"We do need to have a conversation about reparations," Hardesty said. "This is not that."
Two volunteer-led groups composed of mostly Black Portlanders have also given the city their approval of the housing proposal. But not without a disclaimer.
"This is a good beginning," said Steven Holt, chair of N/NE Oversight Committee, which oversees PHB housing projects in the discussed area. "And it's only a beginning. There is much more that needs to be done. Housing is one portion of it, but it’s also economic development, it’s workforce development... there are a host of elements to go with it."
Holt, who is Black, also stressed the importance of home ownership for displaced Black communities as a way to ensure long term financial stability. Holt said his mother was displaced by the Emanuel Hospital expansion deal as a child, and he personally has been priced out of ever owning a home in the neighborhood. Holt, his wife, and his children instead spent years renting homes around the Portland metro area. When they were finally able to purchase a home, Holt said, he witnessed a clear change in how his family viewed their community.
"I had no idea the significance of home security in my family," he said. "It altered how my kids saw themselves. It gave them a different experience of security, of stability and belonging."
Morris said he's still searching for the sense of belonging he lost when the city handed his house over to Emanuel Hospital in 1971. As a single parent, he said he'd like to move back to Northeast Portland so his teenage son can attend a high school that's slightly more diverse than those on Portland's west side. But Morris said he's struggled to find any rental housing in his price range.
"I just don't think I can afford it," Morris said.
Although he now lives in downtown Portland, Morris said he's still drawn to visit his former neighborhood, searching for memories. Instead he finds towering condos and unfamiliar boutiques where beloved Black-owned businesses used to stand.
"It’s heartbreaking," he said. "It’s like our community was taken from us, not just once, but several times. When I walk the streets over there, it feels like a different country... but I've been living here forever."