Alex Payne

Writer, backer, erstwhile technologist.

So You’re Moving To Portland

A few weeks ago, the XOXO festival had its fourth year here in Portland. It took place in a close-in neighborhood on Portland’s east side – the Portland of Portlandia, the weird and genuine counterpart to the city’s moneyed and buttoned-down west side. XOXO happened around a high school that’s been converted into offices. A local grocery store chain (think a less-precious Whole Foods) is headquartered there. A startup I’m investing in rents space there too. My house is a ten minute walk away.

Across the street is the “vegan mini-mall”, a strip of businesses that omit animal products from what they provide: baked goods, groceries, cookbooks and clothes, tattoos. Naturally, it’s a gathering place for the local vegan community. I’m there a lot, usually at the bakery. (Try the club sandwich and a pumpkin chai bar.)

The day before XOXO, I asked the woman working the register if she knew about the festival and if they were ready for the additional customers it might bring in. She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, it’s some rich techie bullshit. I think it’s dumb.”

The conversation we proceeded to have was intense but civil. I offered a limited defense of XOXO: that my friend runs it, that he lives here in Portland and cares about the city; that the event is for independent creative types and not corporate brogrammers. But after that, my standard apologia: I’m in tech but a lot of what tech stands for doesn’t reflect my values, etc. etc.

What it came down to for the cashier is economic displacement. She didn’t really care about XOXO or tech one way or the other. Tech is emblematic, for her and others, of a systemic issue in Portland and beyond: income disparity coupled with limited rental availability means higher rents that are most easily afforded by people arriving from higher-income places and/or working higher-income jobs like those offered in tech.

The cashier didn’t sound angry so much as defeated. “Where are we supposed to go?” she asked. “Back to the midwest? I moved from there. I’m not going back.” I felt defeated too, even as I was describing some of the ways I’ve gotten involved to try to keep Portland affordable and sustainable. Working people don’t have time to spend fighting local political battles and they can’t wait years for solutions to move through legislatures and city councils.

The cashier and I ended the conversation with the explicit mutual statement that it was good to be able to talk about this stuff, across class lines going unspoken and implicit.

California, Dreaming Of Somewhere Else

Portland is the sort of place you move back to.

I left after my life changed suddenly several years ago but couldn’t stay away for long. When I was ready to settle down again, Portland was the only place that made sense. It’s the only place I’ve ever lived that feels like home, inclusive of where I grew up (around Washington, DC). That feeling must be shared by all the people I meet who’ve come back here too: those that grew up here, moved away for school, and returned; those that grew up elsewhere, came to Portland for school, and never left; those that took a job, maybe in Silicon Valley or New York, and eventually came home.

As a transplant, I’m unqualified to speak to feelings of resentment amongst Portland natives beyond the anecdotal. The people I know from here don’t blame newcomers for the city’s changes. The most resentment seems to lie with those who arrived in the early 1990s, when Portland was still rough and the living was cheap. It is no longer the city of My Own Private Idaho, as a local theater company recently explored. At least, not the Portland that people are moving here for.

Californians bear the brunt of the resentment. When I wrote about wanting to leave San Francisco five years ago, the shine of a new tech gold rush was still on the place. Today, SF is the go-to example of how cities can grow wealthy while still utterly failing their inhabitants; Los Angeles is faring little better. In the Pacific Northwest, becoming San Francisco is a nightmare scenario. In the minds of Portlanders, SF is less a place than a cautionary tale come to life: a shambling horror of greed, NIMBYism, and inept planning. When I meet people who have recently moved to the Bay Area, I half-jokingly tell them that I’ll see them up in Portland in a year or two. Based on real estate data, that may well be true.

It’s not hard to spot affluent people who are scouting out Portland as a possible new home – lifestyle shopping. They’re in the coffee shops loudly taking WebEx meetings between house tours. They’re waiting in long lines for artisanal donuts and ice cream, their children squirming with boredom. They talk about the restaurants – so good, and so affordable! Everything about Portland is, for them, cute. Real estate agents are not showing them the neighborhoods where homeless camps have claimed the sidewalks.

I don’t begrudge anyone their mobility, nor the impulse to find a better place to raise a family. I also don’t think any amount of resentment will halt the economically inevitable. Portland is the last relatively affordable major city on the West Coast. More people will come, many of them from California, as I did.

Where Are We Supposed To Go, What Are We Supposed To Do

Gentrification and economic displacement have been perennial topics of conversation for as long as I can remember. These problems go unsolved because, by market logic, they are not problems. Gentrification pushes up property values, ushers in new businesses, and is generally considered to be co-occurrent with “growth”, that all-important yardstick. In the same way that a place can grow rich on fossil fuels while literally poisoning its own wells, a city can gentrify while losing its community, its history, its soul.

Economic displacement is a problem that the powerful are content to live with. When the cashier asks “where are we supposed to go?” the market has no answer beyond “someplace you can afford.”

Portland’s motto is “The City that Works”. Portland plans. That’s a big part of why I live here. My work is systems, and cities are systems, and so I want to live in a city that is a well-run system. Economic displacement is a systemic problem, and so there should be systemic solutions.

For the problem of homelessness, the most effective solution seems to be giving people homes, which is on the whole cheaper than coping with the many issues caused by a large chronically homeless population via emergency services and shelters. Portland could use some of the recently-declared State of Emergency funding to address homelessness in this direct way.

Articles like this one from yesterday’s NYT, on the economic pressures pushing out the artists that helped establish Portland’s cultural capital, take the typical neoliberal line that rent control categorically doesn’t work. Many implementations of rent control are demonstrable failures, while others have been successful; the devil is in the details. In Seattle, City Councilmember Kshama Sawant is making the case for rent control. Portland is observing that debate and will learn from it. Meanwhile, local renters unions are forming, exploring other avenues to protect tenants rights and combat outsized increases in rent.

I’m hopeful that Portland can come up with creative solutions to these problems because I know that there are people here who care. I know property developers who are ready to experiment with radical forms of affordable housing. I know people who want to invest in these sorts of projects. I’ve put money and support behind local entrepreneurs that are creating quality living wage jobs in sectors beyond tech, and who are working with community groups to ensure that underrepresented populations get training and access to those jobs.

If you’re moving to Portland, or thinking about moving to Portland, you have a choice. You can be a consumer of the city – a lifestyle shopper – or you can get involved. You can enjoy the affordable restaurants and kid-friendly coffee shops and live in comfortable alienation from the problems of the city, or you help ensure that people outside your family also get to enjoy a high quality of life. You can engage in a politics of selfishness and greed – the politics that made San Francisco a cautionary tale – or you can engage in a politics of solidarity and community.

Portland can continue to be “The City that Works” or it can be yet another city that exploits its workers as it becomes a playground for the wealthy. I know which Portland I want to live in. The cashier at the bakery lives there too.