May 12, 2016

Organizing Douglas Square: What We've Learned In Our Fight Against Displacement

Conversation between APANO organizers Carol Chan and Khanh Pham

In celebration of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, APANO is bringing our audience content all month-long, all centered on the theme of Building Power. Each week will see a different topic, with each topic connected by our central theme. This week’s topic: Anti-Displacement.

Douglas Square is a multicultural 29-unit building in the Jade District with predominantly Chinese immigrant renters. APANO started working with these residents because they asked us for support, and because anti-displacement is one of APANO’s key organizational strategies. We had heard rumors in August 2015 that the building was being sold and we discovered that it was in fact in the process of being sold. When APANO broke the news to the residents, they were mostly surprised. The sale of the property was also concerning because we've seen renters, many low income and people of color, are often thrown to into the whims of the market and housing crisis after the sale of rental property. The management did not formally provide notice of the sale until several months after we broke the news. After the sale went through, we had our first tenants meeting to get everyone on the same page. We talked about what was happening (that the building was being sold), what could happen, and why it was important to start to get to know their neighbors.

What has happened with Douglas Square residents so far?

In February 2016 residents received a notice that they were going to get a new charge for utilities in the building, so the rent was going to go up $40 for a 1-bedroom, and $80 for a 2-bedroom to cover their water bill. Most residents assumed they would have to take it or move out. It was only through bringing lawyers to the tenants meeting that they realized there were legal recourses they could take to resist this rent increase, and to also resist future rent increases (because we know that’s one of the key strategies landlords use to basically evict tenants to move in higher paying renters).

Residents came together and decided they wanted to be represented legally, and they wanted to fight back against the bill increase. The option they decided to take was to collectively sign a letter to the new property owners contesting the legality of the water bill increase. As of last week the signed letter was sent out, but we have yet to receive a response from the owners.

What are some challenges you've faced organizing at Douglas Square?

One of the biggest challenges of this has been getting these residents to recognize that they have rights and they have the power to fight for those rights. Their experiences renting have been subpar in many ways: their units are in states of disrepair but they're ignored when they make repair requests, they're overlooked because of the language barriers, and they feel like that's just the way it is and they have to live with it. Because of these experiences, it seems they were at a point where they often think, “This is just how it is. Why should we try? Nothing ever gets done.” – especially the Chinese immigrant residents.

Building trust was also hard from the beginning because residents didn’t know who we were, and didn’t know why we were taking an interest. We started to build trust and rapport with them through multiple visits, phone calls, and lots of conversations. I also think it meant a lot that we were speaking their language.

Can you tell us more about the challenges Chinese Immigrant renters face in finding affordable housing?

The language barrier is a big challenge. They don’t know the laws, how to navigate the system, they don’t know who to call, who to ask when they reach a dead end. Economic barriers are also significant. These residents work long hours trying to make ends meet - many of them are working for low pay in restaurants. They don’t have time to learn these the system, so they often have to rely on others for help.

For Chinese immigrant renters it’s also really difficult for them to get a credit. Especially for those working at restaurants where they are paid under the table, they can’t build up a credit score, which makes finding a unit to rent difficult. Compounding that issue is they then have to find a co-signer for the lease. It’s also really difficult for immigrants to save up enough money to pay a deposit for a unit.

How does what’s happening at Douglas Square connect with what’s happening throughout Portland?

I think it’s emblematic of what’s happening all over the city. Renters across the city are facing similar challenges: buildings are sold to new owners, and through cosmetic improvements (not even that much), these new owners use them as excuses to increase the rents and essentially evict existing residents. Sometimes they truly evicting the tenants, and sometimes they do so more implicitly through raising rents and pricing out residents. The fact that they’re immigrants just compounds their vulnerability because of language barriers, financial barriers, and more.

What outcomes are Douglas Square residents hoping to see?

At the very beginning, some of the residents were thinking they’d have to move because of these rent increases, but we're seeing that they do want to fight to stay. They want affordable housing. They’ve lived there for a while, it’s a community, it’s convenient for them to take their children to school, they know where grocery stores are, they know the bus lines - their lives are built here.

I think they also just want respect and dignity as renters. What we've heard is that because they don’t speak English, they don’t have as much of an ability to make repair requests and so they’re ignored. The owners won't give residents the property manager's number so they can't even contact someone when there's an issue. They're often running around in circles just to get basic information and respect tenants should reasonably have.

What are ways we can support this work?

We're always looking for bilingual volunteers interested in reaching out to tenants! We're also looking for individuals interested in Chinese-English and/or Vietnamese-English language exchange so we can build up our language capabilities and create shared language to support our organizing work.

APANO’s work with the Jade District is focused on development without displacement. To support this work, consider donating to APANO so we can continue our work based on our anti-displacement values. As if that was not a good enough reason, as awardees of the Coulter Foundation, all donations to APANO at $100 or more will be matched dollar for dollar- that means you can double your gift and extend its impact!

Want to see what others have created for AAPI Heritage Month? Find a list of our Heritage Month posts here!

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