The Need for Climate Action to END Displacement NOW – by Adam Brunelle, a longtime volunteer organizer with 350PDX.
A little over a month ago, 350PDX endorsed Anti-Displacement PDX’s (ADPDX) 28 measures in the Comprehensive Plan. ADPDX is a coalition of over 30 organizations committed to halting displacement in the Portland area. Recently, soaring home & rental prices and gentrification have made the city unaffordable for low-income residents and many are being pushed out of their communities. A phenomenon once largely confined to N/NEPortland, displacement pressures have pushed east past I-205 and threaten vulnerable residents in the last remaining affordable neighborhoods with housing instability and the prospect of relocating to cheaper housing with fewer services, loss of community connections, longer commute times, and lower accessibility.
What’s worse, Portland residents who face the greatest vulnerability to displacement will also fare worst when it comes to adapting to climate change. On top of that, climate change itself can cause displacement as natural hazards and economic stressors increase. Here, I will share some of my research and connect the dots to show that displacement is inherently a climate justice issue.
The “Comp Plan,” as planners call it, is a long-range land-use planning exercise mandated by state law that sets a roadmap to guide the physical development of the city. Anti-Displacement PDX originally advocated for 11 principles that represent the best tools available to fight the problem. In a process similar to the Climate Action Coalition’s advocacy on the Climate Action Plan, these measures have made it into the draft Comp Plan in 28 places. There have been three hearings on the plan already, with one more opportunity for testimony scheduled on January 7th.
In my testimony at City Council on the eve of the first Comp Plan hearing, I laid out the case for adopting the measures from a climate justice perspective. For Portland, a just transition requires that the city fight to end displacement & preserve affordability in its neighborhoods. Failing to do so is a clear violation of the ambitious equity principles set forth in the Climate Action Plan.
As part of my research on the intersection between climate vulnerability and displacement, I created a local social climate vulnerability map based on data produced by the state health department. Climate vulnerability takes several forms—including those based on proximity to natural hazards as well as social vulnerability which helps understand a community’s ability to adapt to climate change. The map above considers only social vulnerability, with a focus on the Lents area because of the location of the Johnson Creek floodplain—a significant natural hazard. Social vulnerability includes things like income level, foreign-born status, race or ethnicity, body-mass index, children, isolated adults over age 65, birth outcomes, educational attainment, and more.
The state’s social vulnerability study index shows that the Lents & the surrounding area face some of the highest levels of social vulnerability to climate change in the state—including the #1 most vulnerable census tract and at least adjacent 15 tracts in the top 80% of vulnerability. A peek at the larger map shows that this risk extends eastward through Gresham. Meanwhile, residents must also deal with the possibility of flooding from Johnson Creek.
Climate & Health Vulnerability Index. State of Oregon Health Department, 2015R
Red = Higher social vulnerability
While the city has undertaken heroic efforts to stem flooding through the creation of Foster Floodplain, the neighborhood still experiences significant flooding. In 2009 before the completion of Foster Floodplain, Johnson Creek swelled from a 25-year storm. Just seven years later, another estimated 25-year storm struck just one week ago and flooded the neighborhood again. This time, Johnson Creek reached its highest ever recorded level—(15’3.3”) at the Sycamore Gage—edging out the previous record of 15’3” in 1996. Records have been kept since 1941. Since less than half of properties in the floodplain carry flood insurance, these floods—and larger ones—can cause direct displacement through irreparable destruction of property. Many others feel the effects of increased flood insurance rates and the need to shift money from basic needs to flood adaptation & response. That is not to mention the possibility of heat waves, severe economic shocks, increased disease vectors, and other potential hazards.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to predict exactly how and when climate change will impact our city, but it is clear that a community is not livable if it is not affordable. And if we fail to protect the affordability of our neighborhoods, we risk creating a sustainable & equitable city—but only once vulnerable populations have been gentrified outside the city limits. With climate effects only expected to worsen, it is critically important that the city does everything in its power to prevent displacement & invest in stabilizing our most vulnerable communities before the worse effects of climate change & prevailing market forces conspire to dismantle them.
One thing is for sure: Anti-Displacement PDX is on the case. Throughout 2015, the growing coalition has shown a fighting spirit and demonstrated an insistence on extraordinary action—the adoption of all 28 measures in the final Comp Plan and a commitment to continue this work moving forward. Just two days before the first Comp Plan hearing, Anti-Displacement PDX was awarded a Spirit of Portland award by Commissioner Novick for their advocacy on the Comprehensive Plan. In a show of defiance that brought an otherwise drowsy crowd to its feet, 18-year old Llondyn Elliott of the Urban League delivered the coalition’s “unacceptance” speech—noting the coalition would be back to collect the award once the work is done and all 28 measures are incorporated into the final plan.