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Wyman Winston
Published: 22 November 2005

Among the major issues that Portland should contemplate is the growing racial and class divide it is experiencing, particularly among the city's large Black and Brown communities.

Why is race important to rethinking Portland? Because Portland's non-White population is growing quickly. Like other American cities, Portland's long-term future will depend upon the level of success these new citizens achieve. To date, the conditions don't bode well for our city.

Portland has a major class and racial gulf in economic resources available to Whites and the advantages it provides in buying homes and investing in neighborhoods. Recently the Chicago Sun-Times ran a major series on class and race in Chicago that illustrates my perspective.

The story suggests that the class and race gap is a primary factor in the health of Chicago. Remember, capitalism rewards and reinforces advantage — this is the new color line that exists in Portland. Black Portlanders to this day are disadvantaged by decades of economic redlining, preventing households from buying homes and investing in their neighborhoods. A recent homeownership study by the city reported that Black families in Portland are twice as likely to be denied a mortgage compared to Whites, and high-price sub-prime loans represent 70 percent of all loans to minority borrowers. Blacks have a 21-point racial gap in the rate of homeownership compared to Whites.

The African American Alliance for Homeownership has decried the lack of commitment by our government to ensure that citizens of color are treated fairly and that adequate resources are provided to close the racial gap in homeownership. To close the racial gap would require over 12,000 Black and Brown first-time homebuyers over the next decade, and 25,000 to 30,000 households would require education and training. Yet the effort to date has been to focus on serving a very small number of consumers and to ignore the racial bar that continues to deny financing to Black and Brown homebuyers at extraordinarily high rates.

As we think about Portland's future, we should avoid the errors that other cities have made in ignoring the race and class gulf. How does this relate to the Portland Development Commission?

The commission by its mandate helps land and property owners. Landless citizens, particularly Black and Brown citizens, have no direct way to access PDC resources. In addition, PDC will see by the beginning of the next decade a radical drop in revenue. The days of $200 million annual budgets will soon end. As its revenue disappears with the end of several urban renewal districts, can PDC remake itself as a redeveloper of residential communities? As a PDC charter review begins, its future is in neighborhoods populated by minorities.

Portland is oblivious to its particular institutional relationship with minorities who are overrepresented among low- and moderate-income families in the city. Portland doesn't appear to value independent and successful minorities. The city has built a lot of affordable housing using urban renewal funds downtown and in a few lucky neighborhoods, but it doesn't have the quarter-billion dollars it needs per year to solve its affordable housing problems.

But housing subsidies can't solve this alone. What is overlooked is a wage and job strategy. If low- and moderate-income families could garner higher wages, fewer families would need monies that the city and the PDC won't have in the years to come.

The unintended consequence to this anti-business environment is not creating enough family-supporting jobs. Portland has a blue-collar wage economy and West Coast consumer prices tied to the creative class interest. By not focusing upon retaining and growing businesses that generate family-supporting jobs, Portland may be leaving its minority and low-wage earners behind.

Wyman Winston is a redevelopment consultant based in Portland. To view the Chicago Sun-Times article, visit www.suntimes.com/special_sections/black_middle_class/index.html.

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