Cascade Library’s Tony Greiner takes on city’s dark housing past

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The PCC community got a lesson on the history of housing affordability in Portland.

Tony Greiner, who works as a reference librarian at the Cascade Campus and mentors writers with The Bridge college newspaper, reported on research he conducted on Portland’s past housing situations and how they occurred. Part of the Cascade Library’s Community Learning Day, Greiner explored city’s past housing issues and connected them to Portland’s current affordability problem. For about a year or so, Portland has ranked No. 1 in the increase in home values, slowly pricing out low-income buyers and renters.

“A number of people have been looking at the issue of affordable housing over the past few years,” Greiner said. “I got interested in ‘How did Portland get to where it is today?’ which prompted some research that has led to this lecture slideshow.

“I was initially inspired by the Everybody Reads book ‘Evicted,’” he continued. “I wanted to know how Portland got to where it is today as affordable housing has become a big problem. I looked at territorial days all the way to the Vanport floods and found that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme.”

Hooverville homeless camp in Sullivan's Gulch, circa 1932.

Hooverville homeless camp in Sullivan’s Gulch near what is today the I-5 and Banfield Freeway merge, circa 1932.

In front of about 25 faculty and staff, Greiner presented a brief history about: slum housing for Chinese laborers in the late 1800s; homelessness in the early 20th century; Portland’s first zoning laws; the impact of the Great Depression; the federal and local housing programs; the Veterans Bonus March on Washington D.C. which started in Portland; the population growth from World War II and how it affected African-Americans; the establishment of housing at Vanport and Guild’s Lake during the shipbuilding era; the redlining of neighborhoods; and housing programs related to the Great Society.

Greiner explored interesting points:

  • The emergence of local poor farms for homeless and out-of-work families at what is now Providence Park (old Civic Stadium), Washington Park and McMenamin’s Edgefield in Troutdale.
  • The Gypsy Smith Auditorium, which housed homeless men who had been unemployed from out-of-season timber and sawmill jobs. The Northwest Portland structure was torn down because neighbors complained about the homeless men.
  • The connection between city leaders like the police chief, mayor and district attorney with the local Klu Klux Klan, which wielded strong political power in Portland in the early 1900s. Leaders running for office had to get the Klan’s blessing in order to get elected.
  • The city’s abdication of its responsibility to develop zoning and real estate policies. Instead turning those duties over to local builders and the real estate board. Hence, policies were often created to benefit native, white homeowners and segregated people of color in order to preserve neighborhoods.

“The city always puts on a show to take care of the situation, but in reality the rich got richer, especially developers,” Greiner said.

Greiner presented during Cascade's Community Learning Day.

Greiner presented during Cascade’s Community Learning Day.

Greiner talked about Hoovervilles, essentially large homeless camps during the Hoover administration, that propped up during times of a housing crisis. He showed a Hooverville in Portland at Sullivan’s Gulch that spread for 21 blocks. The camp was a result of the massive shipbuilding in Portland for the war, which caused the city to grow by 100,000 in a year, but had little extra housing to accommodate the people.

Because of zoning and housing rules, workers who were often African-American were banned from buying housing in the city. So, places like Delta Park, Guild’s Lake and Vanport supplied temporary housing. But when work slowed and jobs were lost, the housing crisis kicked into full gear, making an impression on the presenter.

“There was no place for them then,” Greiner said. “I walk by a homeless camp in my neighborhood today and wonder why don’t people do anything about it. But because of my research on this issue I now see how overwhelming this problem is today in Portland. There is no easy answer.”

Want to know more about the Vanport housing situation? Visit OPB’s documentary about it.

About James Hill

James G. Hill, an award-winning journalist and public relations writer, has been the Communications Specialist for the Office of Public Affairs at Portland Community College since November of 1999. A graduate of Portland State University, J... more »

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There are 3 comment for this article. If you see something that doesn't belong, please click the x and report it.

x by Heidi Johnstone 6 months ago

The housing crisis it affecting all marginalized individuals, especially the disabled and seniors that get lost in the multitude of other segments of the population and families. My goal is to reach self-sufficiency, but my ability to achieve this and transfer to PSU is being affected my income and financial aid being eaten up by rent. As Mr. Greiner pointed out, there has been much history of discrimination within the local and state government when it comes to affordable housing, very little has changed and our lawmakers who are also property owners and developers are reticent to give up valuable land to build affordable or subsidized housing. The poor, disabled and elderly get less consideration and we just are not high on anyone’s list of priorities and numbers of disabled and elderly on the streets is growing at alarming numbers. With no substantial renters protections or rent control, the doors are flung open for property owners (landlords), to do as they please with no regulation from Salem, it is getting worse and the most vulnerable, disabled and seniors are having all their benefits eaten up by rent, thus putting a strain on an already overwhelmed system that has been cutting Food Stamps, (max. $191.00 a month for food, that is all per person, try living on that with the cost of food). All segments of society deserves to have their basic needs met, housing and food, but with budget cuts and massive development filling the tax coffers and no funds slated for affordable housing and less for 55+ housing. Washington County gave back millions in section 8 housing funds and housing choice voucher funding, because or lobby groups for the apartment owners and the residents don’t want affordable housing in their county…No things really have not changed.

x by Talibah McIntee 6 months ago

I also did my research into this issue and another person behind Vanport, shipyards and the first insurance plan to charge the poor shipyard workers 5 cents a day for health insurance is Henry J Kaiser the founder of Kaiser Permanente. I believe it was the blueprint to continue to slave and oppress the less fortunate today that give into the oppressive structure.

x by Julio 5 months ago

Articles like this make me want to get in to a time travel machine and go visit the places mentioned.
Oh wait! things have not changed that much…I guess I am right there right now.

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