Last week, I had the pleasure of hosting two Portlanders—filmmaker and journalist Cornelius Swart and grassroots activist and policymaker Jamey Duhamel—for a free screening of Swart’s documentary, “Priced Out,” and a discussion about displacement and gentrification.
The film’s basis is simple but powerful: In 1998, Swart told the story of a young black woman, Nicki Williams, who was fed up with the lack of infrastructure, safety and amenities in her neighborhood—so she fought for them, bringing police into her neighborhood and breaking an unspoken oath to not invite outsiders.
“If they call it gentrification, I say let it come—let it all come,” she proudly proclaimed.
About fifteen years later, her historically black Portland community of Albina had become not only increasingly expensive but increasingly white. Through a series of unethical and disturbingly racist policies, Portland’s black community was becoming displaced and dispersed—and Williams felt more and more alien in the place that she had called home her entire life.
By the times Williams left Portland for Texas, over 10,000 black people had been pushed out of Portland.
Watching “Priced Out” was uncomfortable (it should have been), saddening (it should have been), and eerily similar to my home city. Watching folks long invested in the place they called home having to seek comfort in foreign spaces is not a story unique to Portland or Long Beach; it is a current American epidemic.
But this was all preaching to the choir.
This is not me being cruel; there was unquestionably heartstrings being pulled with and through the tale of Williams, if not even a tinge of surprise: In the final moments of the film and sitting in her home in Texas, she says she “understands” those who gobbled up the opportunity she helped created and, adversely, the opportunity that eventually pushed her out—a part which saddened me because no victim should ever feel they “understand” how they were forced out of their homes.
Part Stockholm Syndrome and part pride, her response is a deeper reflection on things beyond the film—mainly: How the hell can we prevent losing those who have invested in cities long before they were desirable, like Williams? How can we prevent displacement?
And while capitalism is surely playing a large role, the hope for that downfall won’t be next month. We need something far more immediate while working on the dismantling of the most unethical philosophical structure ever created—and that means examining current policy.
Enter Jamey Duhamel, currently the director of policy for Commissioner Chloe Eudaly—commissioners are the equivalent of our councilmembers—but a woman who, just a year and a half ago, had zero experience in politics and within 30 days of her tenure directing policy for Eudaly, helped launch one of Portland’s most important ordinances, its Relocation Assistance Ordinance.
That’s right: Within 30 days—and after nearly two years of fighting for renters’ rights and getting Eudaly, the first commissioner in Portland who isn’t a property owner, elected—Duhamel drafted and got enacted a policy that, in very surface level terms, forces property owners to provide relocation funds to tenants they displace.
If a renter in Portland receives a no-cause eviction, a 10 percent or higher rent increase, a substantial alteration of their term lease, or a failure to renew their lease, they have rights and, per property owners, funds to help them transition—somewhere roughly between $2,900 and $4,500, depending on the case.
Permanently enacted earlier this year, Duhamel said the state is now considering enacting it statewide.
Since the law was enacted back in partially in 2017, two camps have been forced to battle it out: Landlords claim their kin are selling rental units and lowering the city’s rental stock while tenant activists say the law has “dramatically cut down on no-cause evictions,” according to Duhamel. As of now, no hard data is available; only anecdotal instances are available right now.
“My ultimate point is this,” Duhamel said. “Beyond the actual ordinance that was constructed, it was because humans—the power of humans together as a group, organized, structured, with a functional response that was impossible to ignore—that’s why we achieved success.”
She admitted that her stance comes off as slightly cheesy but, in her opinion, it is the blunt truth: Through vast organization and a united front—”We refused to get into who’s-the-better-progressive? argument; if you supported us, we were there for you, and we clearly identified the policies and behaviors we were against,” she said—renters achieved power.
And that power is perhaps the thing lacking most in Long Beach for renters: A failed rent control initiative could have possibly sparked rent increases throughout the city, with property owners fearful that the ordinance would reach the ballot and therefore increasing rents before it became more restricted. Add onto this other fears—an influx of housing development that is for those in higher income brackets, a constant flow of gentrification throughout some of Long Beach’s most affordable neighborhoods, sale after sale of Class C apartment complexes, and a general lack of protections—and renters feel like they’re facing a battle of Sisyphean proportions.
“I get that—the feeling that the battle is an impossible one to beat,” Duhamel said. “But if you create a force that has to reckoned with, you will at least get a seat at the table.”
In the meantime, Long Beach’s own City Hall is looking into an inclusionary ordinance—requiring on some level for developers to include affordable units in their projects or pay fees into an affordable housing fund—but is still “in the planning stages now with the community engagement [with the] outreach process set to begin in the fall,” according to Jacqueline Medina, Communications Manager for Long Beach Development Services.