PORTLAND'S BEEN grappling with two housing crises.
The first is the one you’re thinking of. Insufficient housing has produced skyrocketing rents, which have far outstripped Portlanders’ earnings. People are being priced out—of the city and of homes altogether.
The second is easier to forget about. When the region experiences the magnitude 9.0 earthquake scientists have warned of, swaths of the city’s housing stock could become weaponized rubble. So a string of volunteer committees has been wrestling with how to safeguard Portland’s 1,640 “unreinforced masonry” (URM) buildings—brick structures that are especially unsafe in earthquakes.
Now these two crises are butting heads.
Last week, a city-appointed policy commission took a major step in the process of strengthening URMs. After years of study and discussion, the committee voted on a set of requirements it believes Portland City Council must force URM buildings to comply with.
Those requirements include making sure chimneys and parapets don’t fall onto the street in an earthquake—measures that are already supposed to be required, but haven’t been. They also include a second step: bolting a building’s floors to its exterior walls to help stave off total collapse.
As we’ve reported, building owners have chafed at that stronger safeguard, warning untenable costs could force them to sell or demolish their historic buildings. But they’ve also made a plea that’s stirring up renters’ rights activists: If they must complete these steps, and in doing so need to displace renters, some want a guarantee they won’t need to follow Portland’s new mandatory relocation payment law.
The law, passed in February, requires landlords to pay between $2,900 and $4,500 if they evict tenants without cause. That could encompass tenants forced to leave because of new earthquake standards.
But URM owners could get a free pass. In its final report to city council, the policy committee will recommend an exemption to the renter relocation law for URM retrofits.
That creates a particularly interesting question for Commissioner Chloe Eudaly. She’s the city council’s greatest champion of the “relo” law, and is on the verge of convincing her colleagues to make the policy permanent next month. She’s also in charge of the Bureau of Development Services, which is taking a hard line that mandating building safety is a priority.
So does Eudaly favor skipping payments to displaced renters if it means safer structures? Her chief of staff, Marshall Runkel, says the question is moot.
“It’s interesting that they made that recommendation, but it’s essentially meaningless,” Runkel told me.
In his thinking, there are far too many questions about how to pay for earthquake upgrades for the city to take meaningful action in the near future. When the city council considers the issue early next year, Runkel expects officials will address chimneys and parapets—the things that are already supposed to be safeguarded—and delay more-meaningful requirements.
If he’s right, victims of the city’s foremost housing crisis can, perhaps, breathe a bit easier. For potential victims of Portland’s looming second crisis, though, it’s a different story.