“This is an unreinforced masonry building. Unreinforced masonry buildings may be unsafe in the event of a major earthquake,” reads the placard in 30-point type that will occupy the front entrance of 1,600 buildings across Portland. Passed by the City Council on October 10, the law requires buildings to attach the placard by March of 2019. Its purpose is to warn business patrons of the safety of the building they are entering. The explicit message might not seem so consequential, but the implications regarding small-business owners and working-class communities have prompted many to express concerns.
One such concern was that of E.D. Mondaine, president of the Portland Chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.) Mondaine learned of the law, which will have far-reaching consequences in his Albina community, the night before it would be passed. He expressed his outrage not only at the unfairness of the placards themselves, but at the absence of communication with the Albina community during the entire decision making process. The law disproportionately affects people of color and low-income communities, as most of the buildings in question belong to these areas.
For Mondaine, the snub struck an all too familiar cord. “Historically, involving public policy, the black community has been the first affected and the last informed,” he says, drawing parallels to the ‘blighted’ label of the 1960s forced upon the homes and businesses of North Portland residents. This was combined with ‘Redlining’ segregation policies, confining black people to a certain section of the Northeast area. Labeling targeted buildings as “blighted” was a racist tactic employed by the city, designating buildings to be demolished in these neighborhoods. Its covert aim was to drive black people from the corner of the city they occupied. He also mentions Vanport, a former housing project near the Columbia River with a large black population. In 1948, the Vanport citizens were wiped out and displaced because city officials didn’t properly warn them of a flood that would decimate the city.
Retrofitting (upgrading buildings for earthquake preparedness) is an expensive, time consuming process; one that puts serious financial strain on small business owners and not much incentive to have it done. “It takes so long for loans, financing for 5-20 years” explains Kyle Chisek, Director of Bureau Relations for Mayor Ted Wheeler, “we wanted to put some kind of clock on it, because in the meantime those buildings still have seismic issues and during a large earthquake will put lives at risk,”
Essentially, buildings weren’t being retrofitted as quickly and numerously as the city liked, so instead of allocating funds or giving any kind of aid, they slapped a sign on them. Chisek maintains that the law’s intention is for the safety of the general public, but it doesn’t sufficiently take into account the impact it will have on the people and businesses of these low-income areas. For many small businesses, the placard might prove to be so detrimental to business that selling their property will be more cost-effective than retrofitting their building. The placarding will also drive up insurance costs, further burdening small business owners.
As with many government oversights, shifting personnel resulted in a lack of accountability. “This project had been going on for three years previously, so we were catching the tail end of it, so a lot of decisions had already been made,” Chisek admits in the passive voice. He said that in the early stages of the project, outreach had taken place, but Mondaine as a leader of an underrepresented community was clearly overlooked in the process. Though, after the law passed, Mayor Wheeler did meet with Mondaine and the Albina community as a corrective action.
In the end, this law represents the callous oversight characteristic of government action. Small business owners in these old and structurally unsound neighborhood were largely ignored. We understand the need: We’re a city expecting a major earthquake and our infrastructure is scarily unready. But there are more socially responsible ways to handle the situation. Aside from reaching out to communities that are directly affected, provide these small businesses with financial tools to lessen the burden of retrofitting. Mondaine expresses this sentiment: “Everyone wants to be safe, everyone wants their loved ones to be safe. We all want safe buildings, we all want to be okay, but there’s a way to go about doing that.”