Income Inequality

Sellwood is the place to be, if you can afford it

(Click on each photograph to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

I live in the tony neighborhood of Sellwood, in southeast Portland. It is one of the whitest and most upper-middle-class areas I have ever lived in. Overall, I really like it here because of the many amenities I can stroll to by foot.

It is a safe place with an amazing walkability score, if you are into real-estate speculation. I love the local eateries, the nearby public library outlet, the pubs, the winery, the bakery, the New Seasons food store, the Wednesday farmers market, and access to the Springwater bike corridor that connects with north and east Portland.

So why the heck wouldn’t everyone want to live here, if they could afford homes at $750,000 or more? Why wouldn’t developers consider tearing down existing homes and rebuilding massive mega-houses, condos, and new apartments given the logic of real-estate development and the construction industry?

According to the website of the local neighborhood association, the Sellwood Moreland Improvement League, or SMILE, there are more than 30 projects underway in the Sellwood and Moreland neighborhoods.

In the past month it startled me how quickly a house can be torn down, trees cut, and land leveled for some medium and higher density projects. In some cases there are just McMansions that are testaments to the pure gluttony of excessive wealth, and we have those in this area. More are surely coming.

A lot of commercial building activity is taking place, in areas zoned for that. But the demolishing of a home is always jarring. The promotion of higher density development in the inner urban areas of Portland like Sellwood have also spurred a housing and rental crisis that saw Portland’s rent rise at the fastest rate in the country in 2016.

Density not Entirely Welcomed

There is an active, homeowner-driven backlash against higher density, often pitting middle- and upper-middle class homeowners against each other in some areas near me, notably the upscale Eastmoreland neighborhood, while other areas like my neighborhood are seeing the impacts of higher density during the past three years.

I overall support higher density, but I am deeply worried very little affordable rental housing stock is being built, further limiting the ability of lower-income and middle-income renters to enjoy what may soon be off-limits to many.

In the November 2016 election, city voters by a strong margin approved a $258 million bond to build more affordable housing, but it is not clear how those dollars will be spent long-term.

Just this week, Oregonian reported, “Renters, stretched financially and pushed geographically toward Portland’s outskirts and suburbs, loudly demanded solutions—joined in some cases by powerful business interests who saw the issue as a threat to the city’s otherwise growing economy.”

The paper said a typical two-bedroom apartment is now out of reach for most residents. Those are people very similar to me. The paper further noted, “The city’s concentration of struggling renters has only grown. Rents have climbed 30 percent since 2012.”

Meanwhile the bulldozers are clearing a few lots, and I can bet that most of the coming replacement units are not meant for those in my income bracket.

You know you made it when you move to University City Hills

 

I grew up in University City, Mo., a municipality next to St. Louis. It is a diverse community with a rich cultural and architectural history. It remains a racially diverse community with an incredible diversity of wealth, but has remained cohesive unlike other communities where the gap between the haves and haves not continues to widen because of growing and historic income inequality in the United States. The swankiest subdivision in this town is University City Hills, located on the south edge of the city next to much more affluent Clayton, Mo., a mini-financial hub for the St. Louis area. Homes date from the first half of the 20th century and span a wide variety of European styles. It exudes money and power, even though it is quaint as moneyed neighborhoods go.

Growing up in areas far less affluent than University City Hills, I always knew a giant gulf separated me and the kids who lived here. Many of them are the type of kids who went to the best private schools, whose parents were professional and upper-middle-class, and who had better opportunities and health then the less well-off in my community. Yes, many of the kids who grew up here went to my public high school, which was a bit rough and tumble, but many more went to private schools and never experienced the world just outside their leafy suburb. One of my college classmates grew up in one of these homes. We had absolutely nothing in common, and I do not think he ever had to worry about college loans, not doing holiday ski trips, and even thinking about what a security net means to success. He was a lot like many young people I knew at my private college.

I still love how pretty the homes are in University City Hills. I know many of the people who live here are likely good people. But they still remain in a place that is worlds apart from the lower-income areas about two miles north. However because these homes are in St. Louis, prices are ridiculously low compared to, say where I have lived, in Seattle. A three-story brick beauty here is actually less than a single story wood shack in parts of Seattle.