PORTLAND ARTIST Tori Abernathy has been booted from two art studio spaces since 2011. Following her evictions, according to her, the landlord either jacked up the rent for the new tenant or demolished the space.
"It's really easy to talk about people having to move," she says. "But now I can really see how displacement destroys cultures and communities."
Portland has long been an incubator for artists looking for a vibrant and supportive community—minus the high cost of living in larger cities like Seattle and San Francisco. But a perfect storm of decreased development during the recession, and increased in-migration in the years following, has transformed Portland into a place where artists like Abernathy are being priced out as rents continue to rise.
While the city's seeing record levels of office and multi-family residential development, this growth is being partnered with a population boom. Between 2000 and 2013, Portland's population increased by 12 percent—making it the 10th fastest-growing US city of more than 500,000 people, according to US Census Bureau data.
In fact, the seven-county Portland metro area could get as many as 750,000 new residents in the next two decades, and Metro—the region's governing body in charge of many land-use issues—predicts that three-quarters of those new residents will want homes inside the city's tightly regulated urban growth boundary. If that's true, developers will have to go up, instead of out—and that doesn't bode well for Portlanders who are already feeling like they're being priced out of the city.
Abernathy is an interdisciplinary artist who, in 2009, co-founded RECESS, a collaborative arts initiative that began holding exhibitions and renting space to artists at its original location near SE 43rd and Division. The group was evicted from that space in 2011, marking RECESS' first displacement.
"That was a real shame," she says. "We had to close because someone bought the property, and [we were] given 30 days to leave."
The new owner razed the building and put up a cluster of new condos—a situation that's become all too familiar in Portland, where we've seen a sharp increase in commercial and residential demolitions over the last few years, according to data from the Portland Bureau of Development Services and Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. Between 2009 and 2011, the bureau received fewer than 220 demolition applications each year for residential and commercial buildings combined. By contrast, in 2014, the city received nearly 370 applications total, a 68 percent increase.
The buildings that are torn down are often replaced with higher-density buildings, and groups like RECESS—who have long been part of "keeping Portland weird," and by many people's measures, making the city a desirable place to live—are being forced out of their homes and work spaces by what some say are greedy landlords and developers who realize the rental market is hot and are all too willing to burn their tenants to get more cash.
The rash of demolition, new development, and increased density has inspired several different movements, from the "Stop Demolishing Portland" Facebook page, to a call from historic preservation group Restore Oregon for the city to more strictly enforce a mandatory 35-day delay on any proposed demolition, to a group of concerned citizens requesting in April that city council place a moratorium on all development along SE 50th between Hawthorne and Division.
"We are asking the council to... create a plan that protects the citizens of Portland and develops SE 50th as the community treasure it is," neighborhood resident Michael Van Kleeck testified. "This way the city can correct issues... that make the planned developments unsustainable [and] unfriendly to the existing community."
But what folks like Van Kleeck and Abernathy identify as greed, Vern Rifer—a principal at Portland-based Rifer Development and a Portland State University instructor—says is just good business acumen. Rifer says it's not land owners and developers who are to blame, it's a factor of skyrocketing land prices, huge labor costs, and expensive construction that's driving prices up.
"It doesn't come down to a handful of people making a huge profit," Rifer says. "Land in the central city is significantly more expensive than in the suburbs—so new development costs more per square foot to build."
The influx of new residents have shrunk area vacancy rates in both Portland's office and residential markets to new lows, according to research from commercial real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL). Portland's 9.4 percent office vacancy rate is the lowest in 10 years, and is the second tightest in the nation behind Salt Lake City.
At the same time, office space rental rates in Portland are rising at an alarming rate. JLL reports that rents in the Portland office market are up 9.5 percent this year over last, putting Portland in the third-fastest rent increase bracket, behind only San Francisco and Oakland, California.
Newcomers have also scooped up much of Portland's rental home stock, slashing vacancy rates and inspiring landlords to raise prices through the roof.
In response, developers are building a record number of new spaces, according to JLL. The rate of construction and delivery of new developments is expected to be higher by the end of 2015 than it's been in five years. The good news, from JLL's perspective, is that a strong market will encourage continued renovations of older buildings.
According to the laws of supply and demand, increased inventory should reduce rents as competition for space is relieved—but with land prices, labor costs, and construction material costs increasing as well, starving artists shouldn't expect cost relief anytime soon.
Rifer says that when a developer shells out beaucoup bucks for prime downtown land, there are only a few logical business moves.
"The cost of construction is directly related to the cost of land," he says. "If you buy cheaper land, say out in the suburbs, there's no reason to put a concrete and steel building on it because it costs so much more [than wood]."
Rifer notes that when land is cheap, it's feasible to buy more of it and build wood-framed structures surrounded by surface parking. As land prices increase, however, developers must build taller to obtain more space and burrow down to get more parking. Doing so requires expensive steel and concrete instead of wood. It also means increased engineering, labor, and construction costs, he says.
High costs and increased competition with other potential renters are what priced RECESS out of the market, Abernathy says. She and her crew of artists scouted around for a new home, eventually landing at the Oregon Brass Works Building near SE 10th and Salmon. But they only lasted about two years before they were ousted and replaced with new tenants.
Through a series of what Abernathy sees as shady business practices, the property management company forced RECESS out of their space in 2014. Abernathy explained that when she began talks with their landlord about re-upping the lease, the RECESS group was hit with a $5,000 bill for a broken heating and air conditioning system that Abernathy says wasn't her group's fault. Even so, because they wanted to keep the space, RECESS came up with a payment plan.
"We really wanted to keep the Brass Works space," she says. "It wasn't just a studio for me, it was my living space, and we all really cared about what we were doing there."
Even after agreeing to pay the $5,000, RECESS still had to go. Abernathy claims the person who's currently renting the space (who did not return a call for comment) negotiated behind her back to take over the lease from the property management company.
"I wrote this really heartfelt letter explaining that we had this payment plan," she says. "When we got that space it was so ugly; we had put so much work into it. But there's a middle man somewhere who just didn't care."
The experience traumatized RECESS; Abernathy's two business partners decided to leave Portland altogether to look for work. After too many moves, the RECESS collective is fragmented. They don't have a permanent space and Abernathy says rent has skyrocketed so high in Portland that she can't afford to settle RECESS into a permanent home—if she could even find one.
After losing their space, Abernathy and other RECESS artists have shifted their focus to rent issues. They've created a series called "Moving Out" in an effort to explore the effects of rising rents and real estate on arts workers in other big cities and show how the resulting nomadic lifestyles shaped their art.
"We wanted to build a sense of solidarity around the way that people are adapting to displacement," she says. "Not just because of my issues, but also because I've seen it destroy other communities around me."