The ABC's of buying a house in rapidly gentrifying Portland, Oregon

A is for apple. Two of them in the yard, stunted and blackened. We peer at them in the January chill, trying to determine if they’ll flower and fruit come spring. Or maybe they’re cherries. They’re knobby trees, all elbows. It’s hard to tell.

B is for bedroom. We’re getting two of them: one master and one little one that would be perfect for a little one. In the meantime, it will be my office. No pressure, jokes the realtor.

C is for cherries. It turns out they are cherries after all.

But C is also for choices. We have them: we could have lived farther out, way out, in a bigger house, or closer in toward the city center in a condo or crappier house. Instead, we’ve settled in the middle, a block away from a strip of used car lots and a block away from a lovely park, teetering between them on some bizarre socioeconomic fulcrum: just right.

D is for deal-breaker. When the seller accepted our offer on this little bungalow, with its double lot and peeling yellow paint, we checked our list. It had been hanging up for eight months: our requirements for a future home, scrawled in Magic Marker on butcher paper and tacked to the door. On the list were three categories: must-haves, would-likes, and deal-breakers. A decent kitchen was a must-have. A yard with trees, a would-like. There were only a few deal-breakers: not on a super busy street and not too far out from city center.

We realize, now that we’ve made an actual offer on an actual house, that we had no idea what we were doing when we made that list. It was formed of gut feelings and quotes from TV shows and things we’d heard our parents say. But when you’re a lifelong renter, how can you know what to ask for? How can you know what will break the deal, or whether you yourself—your person, your credit score—will break it first? Not every deal-breaker, I guess I’m saying, is a choice.

E is for escrow. Like the cloud, but for your money. It floats, suspended, somewhere unknowable and unreachable and neutral, until closing. Like a lawsuit, homebuying is full of legal terms. I have a master’s degree, but I have difficulty understanding all the jargon. I joke to my realtor that if she can give me the basics in ghazal form, forward me the contract in couplets, I’ll understand it better. She smiles, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. The word escrow floats in my mind, suspended, meaningless, like a mask detached from the face it’s supposed to cover.

F is for friends, many of whom encouraged us to get into the housing game before we were priced out of Portland. You have to bid over, they told us; those techies from California are moving north and buying up all the houses close in. This was true; Portland, Oregon, has been called the most gentrified city of the century and is fast becoming a destination for tech workers and startups displaced by San Francisco’s rising costs.

If you don’t buy now, you’ll have to live way out, and then we’ll never see you, our friends said. There was often something difficult in the tone that was hard for me to parse out. It wasn’t that the market was so hot we wouldn’t be able to buy; the problem was that we wouldn’t buy in the right place. We’d be priced out of our class. We’d take a stumble, land in a less savory neighborhood. Even if we were happy with our bungalow, we’d be separated from our friends in a more difficult, more adult way than ever before: they would be much richer than us. Because I grew up with these people, made communal chili pot beans in our early twenties, drank cheap beer, took the bus, rode our bikes, scraped it together, we had always been on equal terms. Now, though, they would live close in, and we would live out. Our friends assumed that we deserved to live in a cozy, quaint old Portland neighborhood with big trees because that’s the social class we exhibit in other ways: we’re educated, we’re foodies, we subscribe to The Atlantic. It was the second part of the assumption—you’ll have to live way out, and then we’ll never see you—that hurt. What it meant was that if we chose to live in certain places, we would be invited in, but they would not come out to us.

G is for the G.I. Bill, which allowed soldiers returning from Midway or the battlefields of France to take out low-interest home loans. As the forties bled into the fifties and America continued to suburbanize, veterans bought real estate and claimed their little piece of the American dream. Because of the bill, millions of veterans could train for new jobs, enroll in higher education, and buy homes.

However, because it relied on local officials to enforce it, “thousands of black veterans . . . were denied housing and business loans,” according to a New York Times review of Ira Katznelson’s study When Affirmative Action Was White. In New York and northern New Jersey, Katznelson writes, “[F]ewer than 100 of the 67,000 mortgages insured by the G.I. Bill supported home purchases by nonwhites.” In other words, by not explicitly protecting black veterans from discrimination, the G.I. Bill left them vulnerable to it.

The G.I. Bill was written nearly eighty years ago and has been extended several times, most recently to help veterans pay for education in STEM fields. Another version, the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, provides a basic housing allowance to veterans attending school. Although extension bill benefits can now be claimed by all eligible veterans, the history of American home-buying has a more complicated story. Once you have some property, it’s easier to accumulate wealth; if your family didn’t buy it eighty years ago, it’s harder to have it now. “With legacies of slavery and the Civil Rights era, African Americans are kind of latecomers to the wealth accumulation game,” says Princeton sociologist Dalton Conley in the Society Pages. Another sociologist, Karyn Lacy, adds that this was “in part because financing a dream home has involved different processes for white home seekers than for blacks.”

H is for house, which we had inspected for problems when our offer was accepted. This, too, was an unfamiliar ritual to me. I took a morning off work to follow a man with a toolbelt through the house and listen to him hmmm and ummm as he peered at cracked corners and nosed his way into the crawlspaces. He emerged, dusty and disheveled, looking upset. Nothing pleased him. The more I followed him, the less the house pleased me. It was cracked. It was crumbling. It was on the verge of falling apart. Then he turned to me and said, I’m the bad news guy. I wondered if he took pleasure in it.

I is for inheritance, which no one in my family ever expected to give. My parents grew up poor but worked their way into being able to afford a nice home. Attuned to how real estate grounds you, literally, in the soil, they wanted to help us put down roots. My husband and I were already in our thirties and had been expats for years; we had no capital to invest, no nest egg we were sitting on. We’d spent what we earned on flights to China, student loans, and interesting “experiences,” which were all completely worth it despite the sarcasm. Let’s get you started, said my parents, and they gave us money to help with our down payment. We didn’t want to accept help at first, thinking we should afford this on our own, until we realized how utterly impossible that was. The truth is, without their gifts we wouldn’t have been able to get into the game at all. We’d still be sitting on the sidelines, quietly saving. Looking at deal-breakers. My mom said we should think of it as our inheritance.

J is for Joneses, as in keeping up with them. During our twenties, Hank and I lived abroad, committed bohemians with the coolest Christmas cards. When we hit thirty, we returned to Oregon, but it was awkward because, while we were away, our friends had gone ahead and kept living. Most of them owned houses and had babies; they had new friends we didn’t know, and new jobs, and they greeted us like cousins they hadn’t seen for a really long time. After we moved back, it was fun to talk about next steps, so I downloaded the Redfin app. Then I deleted it and downloaded the Trulia app. Then I deleted that and re-downloaded Redfin. Every time someone asked, I told them, Yes, we’re looking, although all that meant was that when I went on jogs, I checked the prices of the houses around me on my apps, marveling at how tens of thousands turned to hundreds, despairing at how we’d ever possibly afford anything except our month-to-month rent. My friends asked, Why don’t you ever invite us over to your apartment, and I’d say, Oh, it’s just an apartment. It’s too small to have guests. Which wasn’t true. I’d say, Let’s go to your house. It’s better for that sort of thing.

K is for kitchen. Ours will be small but full of light, with wood countertops and a 1950s stained-glass lamp hanging over the basin sink. I can see myself spending time here, mopping the tile floors, chopping vegetables with a glass of red beside the cutting board. It’s a vision that will never come to fruition in its entirety; I have few domestic inclinations, preferring a life of the mind and grubbing in the outdoors to anything that even possibly resembles housewifery. My mother is a self-taught cook who opened two restaurants in Hawaii, and I hope to make a new culinary start in this house, but let’s be honest: I didn’t inherit that gene.

L is for landing zone. A map of Portland in The Oregonian shows me areas most prone to gentrification. Where we live now, in our apartment, is bright purple, which means “vulnerable populations have been largely priced out.” I’ve seen the big new luxury apartments going up on the corners, and I know that means rent hikes are coming. Our future neighborhood, where we are buying our bungalow, is a misleading goldenrod yellow. This means the area is a “landing zone,” where “rising numbers of poor Portlanders, ethnic minorities, and people with lower education levels than the citywide average” are moving to escape inner-city gentrification. One must-have item on our butcher-paper list was “racial and socioeconomic diversity,” so I am rather fiercely proud to be moving to a landing zone, to land among different languages and cultures and pay grades. But, of course, my husband and I, white and educated, could also be the first wave that pushes out our neighbors; we could be the vanguard. We could be purpling our new neighborhood without wanting to.

M is for mortgage, which is not pronounced how it’s spelled. Ours will take thirty years to pay; I will be sixty-three when we finally own our home. Sixty-three is also approximately the percentage of Americans who own a home, though the number varies a bit each year. However, home ownership numbers are shifty: 74 percent of white Americans, but only 43 percent of black Americans, own homes.

N is for neighborhood, and in homeownership, there are “good” and “bad” neighborhoods. Such designations, though casual in conversation, are based on real factors like crime rate, access to grocery stores, walkability, the quality of schools. Disturbingly, however, what sometimes drives down home prices and causes white people to leave is the number of minorities. “Put simply, the market penalizes integration: the higher the percentage of blacks in the neighborhood, the less the home is worth, even when researchers control for age, social class, household structure, and geography,” writes Dorothy Brown, a tax law professor at Emory University, in Forbes.

During the Depression, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) wrote a profile of the neighborhood where we currently rent. It was increasing in desirability, they wrote, largely because although 20 percent of residents were foreign-born, Italians “were not predominating” and the presence of Negroes and Chinese was “not thought to be serious.”

Our new house rests at the convergence of three neighborhoods: Woodstock, which is tony in a granola way and has a nice organic grocery store; Lents, which is historically one of the most violent neighborhoods in Portland; and Brentwood-Darlington, which is quiet and lower-class. Depending on who I’m talking to, I explain the house’s location differently. Just south of Woodstock, I tell my friends with good jobs and closer-in houses. Near Lents, I tell my students at community college, who mostly live way out. In neither case am I lying, but it feels as if I am in both.

O is for oak. There’s a big one in the backyard, crippled by winter windstorms and dangling snapped branches over the porch. Hank feels we should get an arborist to trim it, but I like how wild it feels back there, like a thicket in a fairy tale. This may become a source of tension. I can see myself defending the tree, chaining myself to it in coming years. It will acquire outsized symbolism and will scar me deeply when we finally have to take it down.

P is for parents, who always fought over tree-trimming. My mom hated to prune, and my dad always went out with clippers and sheared off way too much of the trees. It was their biggest ongoing fight. I don’t know what it was really about.

Becoming parents is one of our goals, but it’s hard to think that far ahead sometimes. We have so many chinks to fill with plaster, loose tiles to patch, dandelions to pull. I wonder if we, too, will take on oppositional roles for our children: I will be the one who wants a wild native garden, full of climbing roses and overgrown with ferns; Hank the one who goes out periodically with a weed-chopper and chugs through the underbrush, coming inside covered in spatters of green. Will our children look to us for advice on how to trim back the bushes? Will we each represent a different philosophy of householding and spar, predictably and periodically, about the length of the grass? Will we introduce them to the responsibilities of ownership, of understanding and caring for the things you purchase?

Q is for questions, of which I have many. What the fuck is an amortization schedule? Why would anyone create such a terrible word, with all those hard, sharp sounds in it and the root mort, as in mortality, buried in the word like a secret grave? Will we die in this house? Will we be able to afford to die in this house? Is it right that I have a house when I really couldn’t afford the down payment—that is, without the generosity of family, whose wealth passes through generations, whose love sometimes takes the form of dollars, whose pluck and hard work and eligibility for government programs in the last century means we’ve been able to save enough so Hank and I can have a fight over an oak?

R is for reparations, “by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences . . . the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely,” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in The Atlantic. If black Americans have been unable to enter into government programs, or have been denied throughout history the ability to accumulate family wealth, then how will they afford a down payment? How can anyone possibly do this without help, much less in the face of deliberate harm?

I search for my new neighborhood on Mapping Inequality, a website that collects old documents to show how HOLC evaluated credit-worthiness and mortgage-default risk between 1935 and 1940. The area was deemed “definitely declining” and not ripe for home loans. HOLC notes four Japanese families in the area. It notes “no evidence of increasing desirability.” It notes that “infiltration of subversive races [is] a threat.”

When we talk about reparations, it’s not like giving up something earned to someone who didn’t earn it, Coates argues. Simply, the families who were not allowed to take out good government loans should be able to draw that money now. After all, time itself has been a kind of loan. Our Depression-era economy borrowed from families of color to “stabilize and even resurrect a moribund mortgage market and stagnant home building sector,” the website explains. Reparations says the grace period is over, and further deferment is not an option.

S is for slavery. At its root, it was a question of ownership. “By erecting a slave society, America created the economic foundation for its great experiment in democracy,” writes Coates. “Like homeownership today, slave ownership was aspirational. . . . Much as homeowners today might discuss the addition of a patio or the painting of a living room, slaveholders traded tips on the best methods for breeding workers, exacting labor, and doling out punishment. Just as a homeowner today might subscribe to a magazine like This Old House, slaveholders had journals such as De Bow’s Review, which recommended the best practices for wringing profits from slaves.”

Slavery was essentially like owning a home in that it set you up financially. The slaves were the down payment on a future, a way of planning for your grandchildren’s success with human lives.

This many years later, it is hard to trace it: the institutions, the legislation, the wealth that stemmed from our country’s foundational economic structure. Still, I think this collective home, our land, deserves an inspection. I think we should duck into the crawlspaces of national memory and root around with a flashlight. I am unsure how stable such a structure really is.

T is for toddler. By the time we have one (our realtor says), this house will start to “feel small.” We’ll want to start thinking about reselling. It’s too early to worry about a second home, I think; we don’t have a kid. We don’t even have the first home yet. And yet I’m already feeling acquisitional, my mind in the game. Where will we move next, I wonder? Would two toddlers be able to share that second bedroom? One at a time, Hank jokes. But I want someone to pass this all on to. I want to sit out front under the cherry trees in April and throw handfuls of their paper-white petals at each other, calling yours, yours, yours.

U is for uncertainty, from which Hank and I both suffer. We take turns wanting to back out. I stay up one night, staring out the apartment windows, looking at the glitter of lights from the reservoirs and the veterans’ hospital up on the hill. Hank comes in to find me. He wraps me in a blanket and asks what’s wrong. I say I’m worried we can’t do this, unsure if I mean financially or emotionally or what, but just wanting to voice this large, undefined blankness in my head—the swirl of unfamiliar vocabulary, the pressure of making decisions about major plumbing repairs when I’ve never fixed a leaky faucet, the sense of helplessness that has overtaken me just when I am supposed to feel most empowered. He helps me back to bed. A few days later, while grading papers on the couch and watching Top Chef reruns, he has a panic attack. He wants to move abroad again, sell everything and live out of a backpack. We can’t do this, he tells me as I stroke his hands and remind him it’s an investment in our future. Besides, I remind him, if everything goes wrong, we can move in with my folks.

V is for Vanport. Before the vets came home, before the G.I. Bill, when America was deep in World War II, Portland became a center for shipyard construction. Workers flocked to the jobs, and the state housed temporary workers—many of them people of color—in the nation’s largest wartime housing development, Vanport, so called because it lay along the Columbia River between Portland and Vancouver, Washington. Oregon was a big Klan capital, and the whites here didn’t take kindly to a large influx of people of color, no matter how much we needed to defeat the Nazis. After the war, many of the white workers left Vanport, but people of color, unable to find housing in Portland, remained in larger numbers. In 1948, heavy rainfall and meltwater caused Vanport’s dike to fail. Ten-foot waves burst through the dike and rushed into what was still a city of nearly 20,000 people. As a direct result of losing their homes, black folks settled in Northeast Portland, including my parents’ neighborhood, which was, at the time, what we would now call a “landing zone.”

W is for white flight. When my friends and I talk about “good neighborhoods” and “good schools,” we are speaking financially. It’s just practical. We have to take care of our pocketbooks. But Hank and I privately commit, speaking in fierce, defiant tones, to send our (not yet existing) kids to public schools and always build community wherever we are. We will support integration. We will not flee. We will stay in our new gold neighborhood. This is an easy defiance, for now, because we are not wealthy enough to live in the purple.

X marks the spot: Our landing zone. This is where we will land. We close on the bungalow in two weeks. The repairs are in progress. The plumbing is being fixed. The foundation is being reinforced. Sometimes I drive by it at night just to take a look and remember what it is we’re purchasing, our little slice of the American dream. I idle outside the house like a stalker until the neighbor gives me a weird look. I wave. I feel awkward. I want to belong.

Y is for yes. I walk around one not-terribly-frigid January day to get a feel for the neighborhood. There are some rusty cars parked on lawns, for sure, and also some basketball hoops. At the end of the block are some townhouses. I see an older couple taking out their trash, speaking Mandarin. I greet them in that language, and we all smile at each other. Do you live around here? they ask me. Yes, I say proudly. Yes, I do.

Z is for zoning. In the early 20th century, my new Mandarin-speaking neighbors would have been barred from my parents’ neighborhood under an exclusion clause for Chinese people. Other types of zoning are more subtle; for instance, redlining was a practice that rated neighborhoods according to their stability. Housing bureaus could assign green lines to an area, which meant it “lacked ‘a single foreigner or Negro,’” writes Coates; people who lived in that area would be offered good loans. If a neighborhood was assigned red lines, residents would find home insurance hard to come by.

None of this history appeared on our butcher paper list. None of the problematic zoning practices are listed in the Redfin app. Before I became a homeowner, redlining and white flight and landing zones were abstractions, things I read about in magazines. Now they are my neighbors. My choices. My cherry trees. What I did not realize is that buying my slice of the American Dream came with a responsibility of knowing the history of my land.

Now I know my . . . I want to sing to my someday-child in the yard. I want to tell him our neighborhoods are red as ripe apples, ripe as spring cherries, green as the maple leaves spreading their thin fingers over our lawn. I want to tell him. But, instead, I will hold his hand under the blossoms and tell him, This is your inheritance.

About the Author

Caitlin Dwyer

Caitlin Dwyer graduated with a master’s in journalism from the University of Hong Kong in 2013. She taught English for three years in China and now lives in the Pacific Northwest, where she works as a freelance writer and English teacher.

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