What makes a home?

What influenced me to gather a group of radical idealists to work on creating an inclusive Portland

By JULIANNA ROBIDOUX

I believe in the radical notion that housing is a human right, and that everyone deserves a place to call home no matter their social class or background.

Since I moved to Portland in 2013, the cost of housing has increased and the impact of gentrification has spread. The socioeconomic implications of this led me to write my honors senior thesis on the experience of the Eastern African immigrant population here. All of this has led me to my current project— Rose City Residential— a media project about housing issues in Portland.

I’m a young professional from the East Coast living in Portland. I’ll admit I’m part of the reason its population has steadily increased, and as a result, so many luxury high rises and often harmful urban renewal projects fill the landscape.

Photo by Julianna Robidoux

Going door-to-door as an enumerator for the 2020 Census underscored the disparity of the quality of housing available to people based on their incomes. I’ve been to affordable housing units where absentee landlords have neglected to maintain the property for their own objectives, forcing their tenants out onto the street.

I’ve been to 26-story luxury high-rises that have so many empty units it’s truly mind-boggling how we could simultaneously have such a high houseless population.

With the defunding of Section 8 over the last several decades and recent cuts to other public housing programs— not to mention the impact of the economic downturn caused by the pandemic— affordable housing is in higher demand and less accessible than ever.

The concept of home

What comes to mind when you hear the word “home”? By definition, the term is pretty broad. Merriam-Webster offers six definitions for the noun including: “one’s place of residence”, “the social unit formed by a family living together”, “a familiar or usual setting: congenial environment”, and “a place of origin”.

For a long time the term “homeless” was used to describe anyone without an official address to call their own. Now, the more PC term is “houseless”, because, as Kimberly Hunt puts it in a blog post on the non-profit, Do Good Multnomah’s website, “ … a house is just a place. It is simply a physical space that they currently do not have”.

Having moved from my hometown to a different state with my family at the age of seven, the concept of home has always been a little ambiguous in my mind. In 2001, when my mom got a job as a night-time news reporter at a well-known newspaper in Manchester, New Hampshire, my parents packed up our minivan and drove me and my older brother Bill six hours north of our home in Levittown, Pennsylvania to start a new life.

While 320 miles might not sound far, it felt like light years away from everything I knew as a young kid. In my hometown my mom was a well-known lifestyle columnist for the Bucks County Courier Times, the local newspaper everyone had delivered to their doorsteps each morning. She was so well-known that people would often recognize her and stop us on the street to tell her how much they related to her columns. Our roots within the community of Levittown could not have gone any deeper or spread any further.

After we moved to an apartment complex in Nashua, New Hampshire my concept of home quickly readjusted from being the place where everyone I knew and loved in the world was, to the place where my immediate family was— Mom, Dad, and Bill. That first year in New Hampshire taught me how to make new friends and adapt to a new environment.

Once my parents found a house within their budget we moved to Manchester, where my mom’s job was. Whereas our apartment complex in Nashua was made up of more low-income families and immigrants, the tight-knit community we found in Manchester was one of families that go back generations. Although I found my footing once more, I never fully felt like I fit in.

As a result, most of my friends were other outsiders; that’s where I found my new home. My identity as an outsider is also where my interest in creating an inclusive community stems from.

Changing landscapes

Photo by Julianna Robidoux

After living and traveling abroad for a while post-high school, I landed in Portland. I worked as an AmeriCorps member in an elementary school in Hillsboro to gain residency in Oregon before starting college. It was during AmeriCorps that I met my friend Rahel, a fellow team member whose family came to Portland in the 1990s as refugees fleeing civil war in Ethiopia.

Rahel and I have remained friends over the years. One of her super powers is finding the hippest brunch spots that Portland has to offer. It was one sunny Sunday afternoon when we went to a particularly trendy spot on Alberta Street in Northeast Portland that stuck with me. Rahel, a former resident of the neighborhood, made a sweeping hand motion and informed me that the entire street looked completely different just a few years before.

Rahel explained that while it was difficult for her family to constantly move over the years, their experience pales in comparison to that of the Black community in Northeast Portland that has been historically redlined and displaced.

This trendy urban landscape of yoga studios and smoothie shops had caused the rent to steadily increase, pushing her family further and further out, until they finally settled in Gresham where they reside now.

Seeing firsthand how Portland has slowly transformed over the years coupled with hearing Rahel’s perspective on Portland’s ever-changing landscape was the catalyst for my focus on gentrification and displacement.

Redefining home

Is it true what they say: that home is where the heart is? Or is home simply a place where you rest your head at night? Is home a tangible place or is it more of a feeling? Is it a group of people— a so-called social unit formed by a family living together, like Merriam-Webster describes it? Or a group of friends, roommates, or the broader community within the town in which you live?

I believe a city should be designed to be a place for all to call home— longtime residents, newcomers, low-income, and high-income renters alike; immigrants and refugees, people experiencing houselessness, people with means and those without. I believe the City of Portland has failed to keep this sentiment in mind when planning and designing our urban landscape.

That’s why I’ve assembled a ragtag team of local journalists, academics, and urban policy nerds who want to redefine what makes a home here in Portland for those who have been historically underrepresented, including low-income renters, queer folks, people of color, and the Black community.

We’re looking for more writers and community members to share their housing and gentrification-related stories with us. If you have a story to share or know someone who does, please let us know! We want to amplify the various individual voices that make up our city.

I hope you follow along on our journey here at Village Portland as we publish Rose City Residential!

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Footnote: As we’re just starting out, we’re looking for socially conscious businesses to sponsor our blog. If you are a business owner or an employee at a local business and want to contribute to our project, please reach out to us!

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Julianna Robidoux is a local freelance writer based in Southeast Portland. Passionate about affordable housing and immigrant rights, she is a regular contributor to The Immigrant Story, a local nonprofit that amplifies the stories of immigrants and refugees. 

Before graduating from PSU in 2019 with a major in international studies, she wrote her senior honors thesis on gentrification and displacement, focusing on the experience of the Eastern African community here. 

When she’s not reporting on social justice issues, you can find her thrifting, enjoying live music or being overly competitive at bar trivia.

Contact Julianna:

Email: julianna.robidoux@gmail.com

Call / text: 603-930-0641

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