Rockwood housing: Is anyone listening?
I'm grateful to the Gresham Outlook for reporting on the Rockwood Rising project and the complicated issues that arise from the development. I have a few issues with the piece that I would like to address here:
First of all, the concerns about the long-term effects of the Rockwood Rising project are not new, nor are they just coming in at the 11th hour.
In fall 2015 at a public meeting about the project, I stood up and said what many people in the community needed was access to community spaces and also places for children to play.
Last spring, I met with Josh Fuhrer, a former city councilor who now serves as executive director of the Gresham Redevelopment Commission, expressing my concerns that the park at the Plaza Del Sol would be inaccessible to families during construction (this being the only public play structure within walking distance for many families.)
Like Pueblo Unido has mentioned, none of my friends and neighbors were aware of the Rockwood Rising project or how it would affect them, both with rental prices increasing longterm or the inconvenience of years of construction with no public space to gather. I felt the need to reach out.
In the course of our conversation, Fuhrer was quick to assure me that he had spoken to residents and that the number-one need articulated was increased access to technology jobs and training.
As someone who had been living in apartments with primarily immigrant, refugee and lower-income neighbors, I was surprised to hear this. I informed Fuhrer that everyone I knew in Rockwood was primarily concerned with the dramatic increases in rent and the lack of spaces for the community to gather.
As Outlook reporter Chris Keizur pointed out in the story, my personal experience with my neighbors was confirmed by the community liaison report put out in 2016. Under the "community informed recommendations," the first topic is housing stability, which includes intentional housing displacement mitigation strategies, and that all new housing should be affordable and accessible to people already living in the area.
Worries about housing are a high priority for the community, and have been for some time. The project managers for the Rockwood Rising development solicited feedback, became aware of this need, and yet chose to ignore it. When pressed about what his plan was for the imminent mass displacement of lower-income residents was, Fuhrer told me that residents could either choose to take advantage of the services and training opportunities that would one day be available, or not. There was, and never has been, a plan in place for increasing affordable housing or combatting the drastically rising rents. To me, this then seems like mass displacement is what the city is banking on.
This is especially egregious to me, because Fuhrer and community partners like the Rockwood Community Development Corporation (RCDC), gain funding and support by highlighting statistics about Rockwood.
The Rockwood Rising project homepage, for example, talks about how Rockwood is the youngest and most diverse community in Oregon. At the meeting I attended in fall 2015, they also mentioned it has the highest population of low-income families and families without access to cars.
The RCDC, which I believe was contracted to do the community liaison work, on the first page of its 2016 report, says: "Rockwood is the poorest, sickest, most-violent, diverse and least-churched . . . gangs, human trafficking, and narcotics are all concentrated here. At this time, trends are still pointing to further declines in income, educational attainment, and health. Between 2000 and 2012 the number of Rockwood's 33,000 residents living in poverty increased by 61 percent. And the recent appearance of mass evictions in Rockwood has meant the rise of families experiencing homelessness — many for the first time."
The RCDC report seems to contradict The Outlook article, which says the "the current market rate in Rockwood would actually fall below the HUD benchmark, meaning all of the apartments would be considered technically affordable. Expectations are for that trend to remain steady."
Which is it? Is Rockwood only a place in need of housing protection when funds are needed? Not mentioned in the article is the fact that 44 units are being built a few blocks over from the Rockwood Rising project by the RCDC director, Brad Ketch, which will no doubt raise rental prices everywhere.
Fuhrer and organizations like the RCDC are making money and moving forward with developments using statistics about my neighbors, and then doing absolutely nothing to stop them from being displaced once the inevitable increase in rent happens.
This is morally and ethically wrong, and seems to suggest people are profiting off of exploiting stories of Rockwood without doing anything concrete to protect the most vulnerable residents.
Is anyone at the city talking to any of the working families in Rockwood? The rents at places like Barberry Village continue to go up by at least $100 every year, and have done so for the past several years.
While the annual median income in Oregon is a little more than $51,000, the median income of Rockwood is $39,150, meaning that rent above $1,200 starts to be unsustainable. There are obviously many families who make less than this amount. Currently, many lower-quality, two-bedroom apartments in the Rockwood area cost around $1,000-1,200 a month. What will the increase be when the neighborhood is flooded with market-rate apartments?
As someone who has lived here for several years and teaches English classes in the community, I have already seen people move away. Just yesterday a friend went to Salem to look for affordable housing for her family. This will continue to happen. The people who make Rockwood the amazing, diverse and joyful community that it is will be displaced due to the high cost of rent. They are the ones who make this space desirable, and yet they will not get to experience any of the benefits.
As a person of faith, a resident of Rockwood, and a neighbor to people who are already feeling stretched thin by the rising cost of living here, I am asking that the city come up with a comprehensive plan of affordable housing, and that they actually listen to the residents who are the most at risk of displacement.
I am grateful for the work of people like Amy Evans, a city employee who has worked tirelessly to find a place to re-home the play structure at Plaza Del Sol, so children like my own can continue to have a place to play in the neighborhood.
Like Cam and Francisco of Pueblo Unido, along with countless other neighbors, I am not opposed to progress nor seeing new developments come into our neighborhood. Fresh food, small businesses, and community and public spaces are vital to strengthening connections and seeing people thrive.
But without a plan for affordable housing, none of these benefits will be available for the vast majority of working-class families in Rockwood.
We have been here, speaking up about this, and have been engaged from the beginning. The question remains: Is anyone listening?
Danielle Mayfield is an ESOL (English to speakers of other languages) teacher, writer and co-founder of the Immigrant and Refugee Hospitality Organization (RIHO). She lives in Rockwood with her husband and two children.