The Price of Urban Renewal: Q&A with Ophelia Noble Discusses Gentrification in Vancouver

As housing prices in Vancouver continue to rise, the issue of gentrification weighs on the minds of many community members, especially for low income residents and residents of color.

Their fears are not unfounded, according to Ophelia Noble, a founder and community organizer for local non-profit The Noble Foundation. Today, the effects of gentrification are still acutely felt in Portland.

Throughout the early 2000s, older, deteriorated neighborhoods were renovated by richer, primarily white residents new to the area. As a result, scores of non-white and low income families in Portland were forced out of the neighborhoods they called home by the rising cost of housing.

Ophelia Noble, one of the founders of the Noble Foundation. (Courtesy/The Noble Foundation)
Ophelia Noble, one of the founders of the Noble Foundation. (Courtesy/The Noble Foundation)

In response, Portland initiated the N/NE Neighborhood Housing Strategy, a multi-step initiative designed to offset rising displacement. Similarly, to combat continually rising rent prices in Vancouver, the Stronger Vancouver Proposal was started to fund supporting affordable housing initiatives within city limits.

On Feb. 28, Oregon became the first state in the country to address rising rent prices statewide by passing a rent control law. The law prevents landlords from raising rent prices without limits. The bill pushes for an annual rent cap of seven percent plus inflation on buildings that are 15 years or older, providing some immediate relief to renters struggling with continually rising housing prices.

Noble was featured on the Indy’s panel discussion on March 11, following the screening of “Priced Out,” a documentary about gentrification in Portland. Before the panel, the Indy sat down with Noble to discuss the impact of gentrification in Vancouver and the community groups working to combat its impacts. The Noble Foundation is one such group, which focuses on voicing the concerns of marginalized members to community leadership, as well as ensuring that marginalized groups have access to local connections.

If you could sum up gentrification, or the lack thereof, in Vancouver in a few sentences, how would you word that?

Vancouver is experiencing a process of urban renewal to existing structures. The outcomes of urban renewal have led to higher housing costs, affordability and while the city is working on the Stronger Vancouver Proposal – it’s taking all of these things into consideration. It’s a systemic problem that our community needs to address on all levels from leadership, to policy. Without that intersection of idea bubbling, we are going to see some devastating outcomes on a human level, on a personal level and on a macro level.   

Tell me about your work to prevent gentrification in Vancouver:

Prevention really rests in this idea that community needs to be involved throughout the process. When we think of community and how community is structured, we have systems and community that oftentimes may intersect. There needs to be an ongoing push for systems to ensure that the most dynamic and diverse group of community members are involved and in some context, leading the work and the solutions.

How is Vancouver’s story of gentrification tied to Portland?

Vancouver is a city that in its inception and founding, was designed to be a diverse city. Of course, red lining and all of those distinct processes did happen but for the most part Vancouver is very diverse.

If you look at the top ten cities in the United States that are being gentrified, a majority of those communities not only identify as low income but also as people of color. It is an intersectional problem.

When we look at North/Northeast Portland, we say, “okay north/northeast Portland has absolutely been gentrified, yet what does that look like along the Fourth Plain Corridor?” If we’re looking along this Fourth Plain Corridor, it is only one of those two prongs; it really only hits the low income portion. This is what urban renewal looks like.

What do you think is the best way to communicate the voices of low income communities and communities of color to local leaders?  

Direct investments into the community. It allows the community leaders voices to be raised in unity and continuity. Our strategy would be to work ‘alongside’ the leadership, not ‘with’ the leadership.

Our community is having these conversations in silos and we’re just getting to that critical point of creating these safe places for our communities of color. We’re able to come together, to get to know one another and to find out how we’re thinking about gentrification and the ways in which we see both a positive and a negative.

Working alongside our grass top organizations, that would be leadership, that would be political, city council, and really moving away from that language of, “we’re going to work with you,” because sometimes we will be in direct opposition. We have to allow the space and understanding. If we’re “working with,” we’re automatically saying this is going to be tension-free when it’s not always going to be the case. I like the language of “working alongside.”

What do you fear could happen if Vancouver does not adopt anti-displacement strategies that incorporate feedback from affected communities?

There is going to be some unintended outcomes, if this isn’t captured from that root cause. If things do not change, it is going to be felt on the human level. It will be felt through loss. It would break social ties and bonds that community members may have known for their entire lives. If this continues, social networks and entire lives can be uprooted for a long-term community member.

Figuring out new social networks, social connections and new social ties are not always easy to do. Those individuals who have mental health problems occurring may not able to make those new ties as easy as others. it will be deepening the disparities that already exist within the community.

Where do gentrification and urban renewal range in the hierarchy of problems Clark County is facing?

I believe that in any community that is being impacted by gentrification, to me it is prioritized really high. Gentrification breaks those needed social ties.

A lot of the other issues are not only intersectional but are directly tied to the gentrification conversation. The racism, the sexism, housing – all of these things are tied in with gentrification. I could not imagine gentrification happening without some of these other things tied into it.

Vancouver specific, those other “isms,” have become monumental and those things are the priorities. As a community we are not ready to say that we are going through this process of urban renewal, which ties all of these issues together.

We cannot minimize what our communities in North/Northeast Portland have gone through. If Vancouver is saying “hey we’re gentrified!” then that minimizes and reshapes the conversation for that area of Portland. When our community is composed of families from North/Northeast Portland, we’re not doing them any justice. We are not creating a social network, we are not organizing or dialoging on behalf of the community that is here.

What should college students know about gentrification?

It’s so important to understand the true context of loss to community. Loss occurs both on a micro and macro level. Losing that human network connection of what’s known, and then venturing into that unknown and what’s unstable is very hard.

Lower income communities are having to uproot their entire lives, their children, and sometimes even an entire generation. They must embark on entering new social surroundings with no experience of that. It is so important to recognize the loss of even one’s culture when moving into a new community or moving away from their identified, “my community.”

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