Urban Hinterlands (7/10): What is Truly Livable?

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In the Oregonian newspaper there have been numerous articles detailing Portland’s growing lack of affordability. One of the articles was even titled “Working class priced out, kicked out in new Portland housing boom.” It described the new “hipster hovels” (micro-unit apartments) in NW Portland. Even though these units are only 250 square feet, they are still garnering incredibly high rent prices.

Jeff Manning, who wrote the article, said:

The boom raises troubling issues of economic inequality, as rent hikes have spiraled far beyond workers’ wage increases. The posh new apartment houses are prevalent on Portland’s east side, historically the gritty home to the city’s working class. Even developers share foreboding that the central city is becoming a playground for the affluent while the young and the old and the people in the service economy no longer can afford to live there.

Critics have coined a nifty phrase for the trend––“economic apartheid.”[1]

This article raises the question, too: What is truly livable?

In my last Bicycles, Equity, and Gentrification class at Warner Pacific University, we spent time discussing these topics and why inner-city Portland is at the forefront of the conversation. We talked about how what happens in one part of the city directly impacts other parts of the city. As housing prices in Portland’s central city rapidly escalate, there continues to be a growing throng of people opting out.

Opting out is a kind way to put it. The first round of rising prices impacted the African American community in inner North and Northeast Portland. Many were priced out or simply cashed out. The latest round of displacement is “White on White.” We could say that the early gentrifiers are being gentrified themselves. There has been much media coverage of this phenomenon locally, but I don’t have to read the paper to know about it. I’m watching it happen in my neighborhood.

According to some articles, people are not only opting to move east of the 205, they’re simply leaving Portland altogether. Many were drawn to Portland over the last ten years because of its bohemian culture, livability, affordability, bikeability, and artisan economy. But that has also become a magnet for our recent real estate boom. Those who’ve come to experience Portland for being Portland are becoming alarmed that the charming Portland they “once knew” (all of five to ten years ago) has changed, and fast. Again, supply cannot keep pace with demand. In Real Estate 101 that means prices continue to skyrocket. That’s why owners of apartments are able to charge whatever they want, because vacancies are practically nonexistent and there’s a line to get in. As soon as one tenant is priced out, there are others to take the place at a higher price.

Is this truly a livable city?

I have options. You have options. We have freedom to live almost wherever we want. Again, these are the types of trends that Richard Florida has been pointing out for years. More and more people are simply deciding where they want to live before they determine what they are going to do to earn a paycheck. Alluring cities with the most urban amenities are on the receiving end of this boom. Livability means a lot. It can make or break a city. In many ways, a city’s future rests on its ability to capture and retain young creatives and new start-ups.

But should livability be the determining factor for where we plant new churches? What if we asked that question or applied our logic in the cities of the developing world? That means in places like Lima, Mexico City, Caracas, or Bogotá we would only see new churches planted among the affluent and the shantytowns would be neglected. Is that congruent with the gospel?

In North America it seems most denominations and church planting organizations “strategically” target the middle-class and above. I am regularly on the websites of all of these entities focusing on planting churches in cities in North America. They seem to only highlight the cool, alluring, and hip parts of the city. It is as though the branding done by cities has been effective not only in attracting new industry, but also in swaying church planters.

Am I being harsh? Yes, but for a reason. Not as an emotional rant or tirade about the mechanisms of denominational life or that of church planting organizations, but to highlight the absurdities of our flawed logic at times in determining where to plant churches. In contrast, “Like a mother who tends most tenderly to the weakest and threatened of her children, so it is with God’s care for the poor. And the call of the Gospel is for us to do the same, to make the same option, to show that God’s love is universal by focusing our attention on the most threatened among us.”[2]

Livability cannot and should not be the overriding determining factor for where we plant new churches. If so, we run the risk of showing partiality. As the writer James says in the Bible:

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.[3]

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  1. Manning, Jeff. “Working class priced out, kicked out in new Portland housing boom.” The Oregonian, September 22, 2015. Online: http://www.oregonlive.com/watchdog/index.ssf/2015/09/post_19.html, para. 8-9.

  2. Farmer and Gutiérrez, In the Company of the Poor, 29.

  3. James 2:1-9.

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This is an excerpt from the book Urban Hinterlands: Planting the Gospel in Uncool Places.