An unreinforced masonry building in Northeast Portland.
An unreinforced masonry building in Northeast Portland. Sarah Yoeman

A controversial earthquake safety ordinance that pitted local building owners against Portland City Council will likely be overturned at Wednesday’s council meeting.

The ordinance on the chopping block requires that owners of the city’s 1,600 unreinforced masonry buildings (URMs)—old brick buildings likely to collapse during an earthquake—place a sign on their buildings notifying the public of this danger, and include that warning in new tenant rental agreements. Since passing a City Council vote in October 2018, the ordinance drew sharp criticism from a coalition that included the Portland NAACP chapter, Portland Tenants United, Music Portland, and others. The coalition argued that the placarding ordinance placed an unfair burden on small business owners and historically Black churches who couldn't afford the costly price of reinforcing their buildings to make them withstand an earthquake. They also feared the placard could possibly affect their ability to secure a loan or property insurance.

Another group of URM building owners sued the city earlier this year on the grounds that the ordinance violated their first amendment rights. In May, a judge sided with the building owners, placing an indefinite block on the policy. This came after a February 2019 council vote to suspend enforcement of the ordinance until November 2020.

Now, City Council is poised to overturn the ordinance outright, and instead convene two new workgroups that will explore incentive-based, rather than punitive, ways to encourage building owners to upgrade their URMs. Dan Douthit, a spokesperson for the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management (PBEM), said the building owners’ lawsuit is “a big reason” for the city’s course change on URMs.

“And also, we want to focus attention on figuring out the next steps for how we get these buildings retrofitted,” Douthit added. “By resolving this, we can put all our efforts into coming up with financial incentives and building on the work done in previous committees.”

The two workgroups are comprised of 27 members of the public who volunteered to join. One group will consider solutions for for-profit businesses and the other will explore options for non-profits, including churches. Douthit said the work groups will focus on ways to fund voluntary retrofitting for all privately-owned URMs, such as offering tax breaks or starting a city-funded loan program.

The city still plans to require all publicly owned URMs, like schools and community centers, to undergo mandatory seismic retrofits.

“What we do know,” Douthit said, “is that a one-size-fits-all solution isn’t going to work.”

Jim Brunberg, the owner of Mississippi Studios, was among the coalition that opposed the placarding ordinance. (Mississippi Studios is not a URM, but Brunberg said he is an "advocate" involved on behalf of other business owners.) Brunberg said that while he hasn’t had a chance to fully review the city’s new proposed policy, he does support overturning the placarding ordinance.

“[The placarding ordinance] was entirely punitive, debilitating and destructive for most Portland unreinforced masonry buildings,” Brunberg wrote in an email to the Mercury. “I applaud any efforts the city takes to incentivize building owners into upgrading the safety of their buildings in any way.”

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, the commissioner in charge of PBEM, said she is “excited to see what suggestions this new unreinforced masonry building committee comes up with” in a statement shared with the Mercury.

“As a long-time organizer and community leader, what I know is that all process is improved by listening to more voices,” Hardesty said. “I am committed to continuing the conversation to improve Portland’s resilience in the event a disaster strikes.”