Portland neighborhood associations are not well regarded in City Hall these days, and Westside activists feel the chill.
“Neighborhood associations are a broken brand,” Felicia Williams told the board of Neighbors West/Northwest, the coalition of 12 inner Westside neighborhood associations, which she chairs.
Williams, who is also president of the Portland Downtown Neighborhood Association, has been warning neighborhood leaders for months about potentially drastic changes in the wings for the city’s pioneering neighborhood system, once regarded as a national model.
Long considered the pillar of citizen input for city policy-making, neighborhood associations now seem to take a back seat to groups based on racial and cultural identity, as well as to issue-based groups.
“They want to basically get rid of the geographic model,” Williams said, a model that city commissioners increasingly label as the voice of white homeowners opposing development in their backyards.
The new current has been evident at City Hall at several levels.
Citizen advisory committees have been reorganized to exclude neighborhood representatives, she said.
“This is how the bureaus are going and have been going for quite a while,” she said. “Some bureaus … made everybody reapply, and the only ones cut were with neighborhood groups.”
The hiring of a new executive director for the dysfunctional Office of Neighborhood Involvement may signal where traditional neighborhood associations stand, and where the power may be shifting.
Before the 11-year term of former ONI Executive Director Amalia Alarcon de Morris, neighborhood associations were involved in screening candidates for that position. No such promises are being made this time by City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly or David Austin, whom she recently appointed as interim director of ONI.
Furthermore, Williams said the leading candidates to replace Morris have no experience in Portland’s citizen involvement system.
NWNW sent a letter to Eudaly asking for a public process to select the permanent director. At Williams’ recommendation, the letter did not seek a role specifically for neighborhood associations or claim their supremacy over of identity and issue groups.
“We’re going to run into a brick wall if we ask for consideration as neighborhood associations,” she said.
Pearl District Neighborhood Association President Patricia Gardner confirmed Williams’ reading of the current political climate.
“We shouldn’t say neighborhoods are over all,” Gardner said. “We should be as inclusive as possible and … not undercut identity and issue groups.”
Les Blaize, who has represented the Forest Park Neighborhood Association on the coalition board for a decade, is troubled by the dramatic loss of favor.
“This is dire stuff,” said Blaize, who likened the possible demise of the city’s neighborhood support system established in the 1970s to “going back to the Dark Ages.”
Rather switch than fight
Westside neighborhood leaders have seen the handwriting on the wall and are ready to make accommodations.
There is a point to what they’re saying,” Gardner told Pearl District Neighborhood Association board members.
The organization needs to reflect business interests and those of renters, who outnumber homeowners. Workers outnumber all residents. While she doesn’t consider her organization exclusive, Gardner says it can do more to mobilize these sectors.
“We’re not just here for the property owners,” she said.
As for supporting development, Gardner said the Pearl is all in. “We are pro development,” she said. “I can count on my hands the number of times we say no [to a development proposal].”
“In order for us to undercut the NIMBY charge, we have to be creative,” Williams said.
She encouraged association leaders to document the “partnerships” they have with other organizations, a practice Eudaly hails.
Williams also advised leaders to look at census data in their districts to see how reflective they are of the communities they speak for.
While accepting that Eudaly has “no interest in meeting with any neighborhood associations or coalitions,” Williams highlighted an upcoming event at which neighborhood activists might make a good impression.
Eudaly will hold a “meet and greet” in the City Hall atrium Thursday, May 4, 6:30-8 p.m. Williams urged coalition leaders to attend and bring representatives from outside organizations they partner with as a demonstration of their broader impact.
The impetus for the council’s new look at Portland’s neighborhood system comes from Seattle, which last summer transferred support for its neighborhood coalition system to an array of organizations representing racial minorities, tenants, students and other demographic groups.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said the goal was to shift resources to a “more diverse group of people” in line with the city’s racial and social justice policies.
Stan Penkin, vice president of the Pearl District Neighborhood Association, said there is a growing sentiment in City Hall for “getting rid of the neighborhood system as Seattle did.”
Portland officials are increasingly critical of neighborhood associations for opposing development and heightening social inequity, Penkin said.
Former City Commissioner Steve Novick hit these notes in a March Willamette Week cover story. Neighborhood activism made his list of five areas most needing transformation.
“When City Hall hears from ‘the neighborhoods,’ it’s really hearing from a self-selecting segment,” Novick wrote, “and they have an agenda. In the context of planning and zoning, they tend to oppose, for example, the idea of increasing and diversifying the housing supply by allowing more duplexes and triplexes in single-family zones.”
Novick likes an approach employed in Toronto, where citizens were invited to serve on a 28-member planning review panel, which includes 14 minorities, 13 renters and eight people under 30.
“I hope that Chloe Eudaly, elected as a tribune of renters, will break the mold and reform the citizen involvement model,” he said.
Eudaly is bent on change. She had Austin reply to NWNW’s letter.
“Neighborhood associations are an important piece of the fabric that makes Portland a great city,” Austin wrote. “Commissioner Eudaly and I, though, remain committed to making sure that ALL Portland residents feel welcomed into the neighborhood association arena.
“In the past, it’s been abundantly clear that people who are renters, people of color, low-income residents and others have not felt welcome at neighborhood association events. We will work hard to change that impression, and it will be incumbent upon all of us to change that, especially in light of what’s going on politically across the nation under President Trump.”
In selecting the new ONI executive, Austin affirmed that Eudaly intends to take the bureau “in a different direction.”
Before making a decision, “her plan is to continue to meet with people from all communities to hear their concerns about how Portland can be a livable city.”
As to Williams’ letter asking to be included in the hiring process, Austin was dismissive.
“We received a letter from Felicia Williams asking for the chance to have public input. Anyone who wants to can call or write the commissioner’s office. We appreciate all letters, emails or other correspondence we receive from the public.”