The Portland Outdoor Store is one of the city’s 1,650 URMs
The Portland Outdoor Store is one of the city’s 1,650 URMs Mercury Staff

Portlanders who own old brick buildings—the kind expected to collapse during an earthquake—have a new ally in Portland City Hall.

On Thursday, Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty pumped the brakes on a city ordinance mandating people who own one of these "unreinforced masonry" buildings (called URMs) to stick a label on the building deeming it unsafe.

Building owners would only be allowed to remove these 8-by-10-inch placards, which they've called "the Scarlett Letter," if they pay to have their building upgraded to withstand an earthquake (estimated costs range from $43 to $105 per square foot).

This URM ordinance was approved by city council in October, months before Hardesty was sworn in, and is slated to go into effect on March 1. But after fielding the concerns of cost-burdened communities particularly impacted by this rule, she's using what tools she has to pause the program.

That means directing Portland Fire and Rescue—a bureau which Hardesty oversees—to indefinitely halt its plans to enforce the new city rule until "further outreach" from her office is completed. She's also asked another bureau in her portfolio, Portland Bureau of Emergency Management (PBEM), to lead council work sessions to further investigate financial incentives the city could offer to cover seismic upgrade costs.

Portland's Black community has expressed particular concern with the URM placarding requirements, with the Portland chapter of the NAACP publicly opposing the rule. Critics argue that the labeling rule—which appears to disproportionally impact buildings owned by Black Portlanders—will make it difficult for owners to lease, refinance, or mortgage their buildings.

"No one is interested in putting our residents at risk, but we need to look at ways to better support businesses and non-profits in seismically upgrading their buildings,” said Hardesty, in a press release issued Thursday afternoon. “A placard is a band-aid for a much larger problem. Until we have better support in place, especially in the form of funding assistance for these projects, I want placarding enforcement on hold for businesses and non-profit organizations.”