The painful history of Portland's 'Red house'

This Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020 photo shows a home on North Mississippi Avenue in Portland, Ore. where protesters have camped to prevent a Black and Indigenous family from being forced to leave the foreclosed home, which has been dubbed the “Red House on Mississippi”. (Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian via AP)

Richard Walker

Developer: ‘We’re actively looking for a solution for this difficult situation’

Richard Arlin Walker

Special to Indian Country Today

A developer who bought a house in Portland, Oregon, that became the center of an anti-eviction protest is reportedly in negotiations to sell the house back to its former Black and Indigenous owners.

If all goes as planned, William and Julie Kinney – he is Black, she is Upper Skagit – would return to the home that had been in their family for 65 years. Some 5,400 donors had contributed more than $286,000 by Dec. 11 – surpassing the $250,000 goal — toward the repurchase of the home.

Roman Ozeruga of Urban Housing Development LLC told more than one media outlet that he’s been in touch with Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office, adding, “We’re actively looking for a solution for this difficult situation.”

Wheeler has said that he hopes to negotiate a settlement. Negotiations seemed to be underway Dec. 11. Indian Country Today reached out that day to Wheeler’s office; City Tribal Relations Director Laura John, Blackfeet/Seneca; City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, the only African American member of the City Council and a former president of the NAACP in Portland; and Ozeruga. None were available for comment.

Should the house be returned to the Kinneys, it will likely remain a symbol of continued work the city of 650,000 needs to do to root out systemic racism.

Portland_Protests_20344692693131
Signs and barricades remain outside a house on North Mississippi Ave. in Portland, Ore., on Wednesday, December 9, 2020. Makeshift barricades erected by protesters are still up in Oregon's largest city a day after Portland police arrested about a dozen people in a clash over gentrification and the eviction of a family from a home. (Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian via AP)

Portland’s painful racial history has many chapters. 

In the 1830s waves of American, Canadian and British people arrived here to trade, trap and establish homes on lands belonging to the Multnomah people. Business partners William Overton and Asa Lovejoy filed a land claim here in 1843 and began clearing and building. In the ensuing years, the Indigenous population was decimated by relocation or diseases for which they had no immunity.

Starting in the 1840s there was a growing idea that Oregon could be a white state, free from the problems of race. In 1857 the Oregon Constitutional Convention did ban slavery – as well as free Blacks. Laws called for any Black settler in the territory to be whipped with "not less than twenty nor more than thirty-nine stripes" for every six months in residency.

Oregon’s first governor, Joseph Lane, was a North Carolina-born supporter of slavery who would serve in the U.S. Senate and run for vice president in 1860. Post-Civil War, many of Oregon’s new residents were Southern whites. Confederate symbols and flags can still be found in the Beaver State.

The City of Portland was incorporated in 1851 – four years before the United States and Indigenous leaders agreed to terms outlined in the Willamette Valley Treaty. The population grew from 2,874 in 1860 to 90,426 in 1900 as newcomers flooded into the area to work on the waterfront and on the railroad.

By 1910, the population was more than 200,000. Most of the remaining Multnomah people relocated to reservations. African Americans – drawn to Portland by those maritime and railroad jobs – began moving to the city’s Albina neighborhood where homes were more affordable. Real estate practices worked to prevent African Americans from moving elsewhere in the city; the local real estate board adopted a rule in 1919 declaring it “unethical” for an agent to sell property in white neighborhoods to African American and Chinese people.

In the mid-1950s, William Kinney’s parents, William and Pauline, bought their home in the Albina neighborhood, at 4406 N. Mississippi Ave. The elder Kinneys’ son and daughter-in-law, William and Julie Metcalf Kinney, moved into the home in 1983 and – according to the Multnomah County Assessor’s online database – assumed ownership in 1994. They owned the house free and clear until 2004 when they took out a mortgage to pay legal expenses resulting from a son’s vehicle collision.

The Albina neighborhood has changed dramatically as properties were purchased and redeveloped. Mississippi Avenue is now lined with pricey condominiums, boutique shops, an art gallery, a brew pub, a cocktail bar, a distillery, an oyster bar, and a “hip” pizzeria. The Kinneys’ 124-year-old home with finished attic is now next door to a four-story apartment building called The Roux and a Florida-inspired cocktail bar called Sweet Nothing.

Albina was once the only neighborhood in Portland where African Americans could own a home. Now, African Americans were being pushed out by gentrification. And in 2018, the Afro-Indigenous Kinney family seemed to be next.

Oregon state Rep. Tanwa Sanchez, Shoshone-Bannock, told Indian Country Today’s newscast Friday that the issue is that Black and Brown people are being pushed out of the neighborhood, “out priced” by development. “And the neighborhood I grew up in which again was primarily Black folks and Native folks is no longer there." Sanchez, D-Portland, said the goal is to raise enough funds to get the house back to the family.

Newscast: Brown and Black 'outpaced' in Portland

According to the county assessor’s database, the lender foreclosed on the home in 2018 – the Kinneys allege they were victims of predatory lending practices during the refinance process – and sold the home to Urban Housing Development LLC.

The lender and buyer did well in the foreclosure. The Kinneys said they owed $97,000. The lender sold the house for $260,000, for a profit of $163,000. Meanwhile, the real estate market value of the Kinney home that year was $387,650, according to county records, $127,650 more than Urban Housing Development paid for it. The Kinneys received nothing but an eviction notice.

The Kinneys filed suit in an attempt to stay in their home, citing illegal foreclosure and, after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, protection under eviction moratoriums. In September this year, a judge rejected the family's request for a stay of eviction. On Sept. 9, armed sheriff’s officers forcefully entered the home and ordered the Kinney family to pack their belongings and leave the premises within 30 minutes.

Family members and protesters would return and occupy the home. But “occupation” began to take a different form and meaning.

Protests come to Mississippi Avenue

Events in 2020 pushed people in Portland and elsewhere in the United States into the streets to call for justice: Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women. The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia; Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky; George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. That street action only increased after the divisive statements from President Trump.

In Portland and elsewhere, Trump’s response was not one of reconciliation but of force, sending National Guard troops in to attempt to quell demonstrations.

Mayor Wheeler wrote on his website that racial justice protests in his city and elsewhere have “given us this historic opportunity to reimagine what policing and public safety look like in Portland and all across America.” He committed $12 million for racial justice reforms, among them: banning choke holds, providing greater access to behavioral health services in communities of color, moving transit officers back to street patrol, reestablishing the Equity & Inclusion Office in the police department, and making the city’s Committee on Community Engaged Policing a permanent oversight body.

But a police raid Dec. 8 on the Kinney home and an encampment on a vacant lot next door – which protesters said was established with the lot owner’s permission – only reinforced to protesters that real change was not forthcoming. And as of this writing, eight of 19 reforms in Wheeler’s plan have been enacted, according to the mayor’s website.

Protesters responded to the raid by barricading the street and Kinney home. Wheeler called the protest “an illegal occupation” and authorized the police to “use all lawful means” to end it.

“We all agree many of our nation’s systems and structures are fundamentally racist and require significant reform,” he said. “There’s a housing crisis, a health care crisis, an education crisis, an employment crisis, a mental health crisis, and an addiction crisis. All of these crises are magnified in urban areas, including Portland. And, these crises disproportionately impact Black people.

“It’s also true that illegal trespassing, ignoring lawful orders from police, blocking sidewalks and streets, and intimidating neighbors inflame these crises and make them more difficult to solve. That is what’s happening on North Mississippi Avenue right now.”

Police Chief Chuck Lovell, who is Black, warned on Dec. 9 that police would “enforce the law and use force if necessary to restore order to the neighborhood.” That night, a line of armed police officers and state troopers in riot gear moved in.

“Get out of the street, get onto the sidewalk, disperse from the area now,” an officer stated repeatedly over a bullhorn as officers followed them out of the neighborhood. “Continue moving east. This is a riot. Disperse from the area now.”

People could be heard chanting George Floyd’s name and calls for support for people of color.

Supporters wrote on Twitter that Wheeler escalated the situation by mischaracterizing the blockade as an “autonomous zone.” The Kinney home, they wrote, “is NOT an autonomous zone. This is an Afro-Indigenous land takeback and community-supported eviction blockade.”

They wrote that Wheeler failed to “immediately reach out to the Kinneys and take responsibility for his police bureau’s excessive use of force” in the raid. They also wrote that people of color who have firearms under Oregon’s open carry law are being held to a different standard than whites.

Language used by Wheeler and Lovell “seeks to criminalize the right of Afro-Indigenous people to bear arms,” protesters wrote. Meanwhile, “We are threatened upon speculation, while known white supremacists continue to brandish arms without consequence.”

As the blockade continued into its fourth day, both sides waited for a resolution.

PORTLAND AT A GLANCE

  • Original residents: Multnomah people
  • Land acquired by U.S.: Willamette Valley Treaty, negotiated Jan. 22, 1855
  • City incorporated: Feb. 8, 1851
  • Population: 654,000, the largest city in Oregon
  • White: 70.6 percent
  • Hispanic or Latino: 9.7 percent
  • Asian: 8.2 percent
  • Black: 5.8 percent
  • American Indian/Alaska Native: 0.8 percent
  • Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander: 0.6 percent

In the Portland School District:

  • White: 56.5 percent
  • Hispanic or Latino: 16.5 percent
  • Asian: 6.5 percent
  • Black: 8.7 percent
  • American Indian/Alaska Native: 0.6 percent
  • Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander: 0.7 percent
  • Multiracial, Asian/White: 4.3 percent
  • Multiracial, other ancestries: 6.2 percent

*= 33 percent of Hispanics or Latinos identify as Indigenous, according to research by the Pew Center. Added to the number of American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, that brings Portland’s Indigenous population to 4.7 percent.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Portland School District

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Richard Arlin Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, is a journalist and mariner living in Anacortes, Washington, about 80 miles north of Seattle. 

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