Illustration by Leo Clark

Get off our lawn: Portland’s hostile architecture betrays our city’s houseless attitudes

We’ve only tried cruelty and we’re all out of ideas

I first noticed it down the street from my apartment earlier this year—random planter boxes placed down on a corner where occasionally one to three houseless neighbors had tents set up.


This corner is quite large compared to most around Portland, and even when a small number of tents were there, no one was ever impeded from walking through. These planter boxes appeared after another needless sweep—a term for the police eviction of houseless camps—reflecting Portland’s inhumane, forced relocations of our houseless neighbors. I worry about our houseless neighbors throughout Portland, a so-called progressive city that claims to be inclusive unless that requires empathy towards people who don’t have stable housing.


These planter boxes that are being hastily placed in locations after sweeps occur are forms of hostile architecture, a tool that the NIMBY—an acronym meaning “not in my backyard”—Portlanders seem to think is cute and clever.


Recently, members of the Laurelhurst Neighborhood Association placed several planter boxes where a houseless sweep had just occurred. They were gone by the next morning. The NIMBYs of the Laurelhurst Neighborhood Association had placed these planter boxes without a permit, so they became a lovely donation for anyone needing a planter box. While the Laurelhurst neighborhood is in the top 15% of highest income neighborhoods in the country, it was still a generous albeit small donation from the residents that placed those planter boxes out.


Planter boxes aren’t the only types of hostile architecture that are being implemented after sweeps. Wealthy real estate developer Jordan Schnitzer installed almost two dozen bike racks along a strip of sidewalk adjacent to a seemingly vacant building that he owns. While disgusting and inhumane, it seems fitting that a place as passive aggressive as the Pacific Northwest would use planters and bike racks as forms of hostile architecture.


A short interview on KOIN back in Jan. reveals Schnitzer’s out of touch and classist views. When he was asked about how he and the business community are dealing with the houseless population downtown, he said that he and those in the business community are all lucky enough to own property in both downtown and the suburbs, though he audibly stuttered near the end, possibly caused by a brief moment of self awareness of his privilege. He also said immediately afterwards that even though people don’t like the rising cost of apartment rents, it is a positive because it shows a strength in that market.


While many articles describe Schnitzer as a philanthropist, the only well-being that he seems interested in improving is the well-being of wealthy property and business owners.


While the wealthy property and business owners are aligned with NIMBY views, their hate towards houseless Portlanders is also shared by many in the city. With the Portland subreddit being one of the more toxic city subs on Reddit, a look at any post regarding the houseless reveals incredibly disturbing and unfortunately popular comments. In these posts regarding the houseless, some of the most upvoted comments tell posters to call the cops several times a day to lie and say that the houseless are being violent and using drugs around kids despite that not being the issue brought up by the original poster, who seemed more annoyed than threatened.


Other comments have users telling the original poster to wait for them to leave their tents so that they could soak their belongings by sticking a hose into their tents, or to throw all of their belongings in the trash. Comments that tell users to call the cops is an action that will likely get people killed by trigger-happy police.


Those who control the narrative around the houseless also continue to fuel the fire of hatred. The way that local news, politicians and many people in the city talk about the houseless is by using rhetoric that purposely aims to classify our houseless neighbors as second-class, subhuman citizens—an othering of them done with the intent of dehumanization.


While local news stations claim to objectively report the news, who they talk to and the stories that they focus on are rarely objective, allowing them to control the narratives that fuel such negative views towards the houseless. KOIN news had an ongoing segment titled “Is Portland Over?”, cheaply and dishonestly promoting further NIMBYism. KGW did a 30 minute video about the houseless that was somewhat more objective, but like many issues that are lauded as being reported objectively, they either draw false equivalencies on what they are reporting or completely fail by ignoring the bigger picture.


One of the narratives that gets amplified across the board is that we need to focus on mental health and substance abuse as the source of houselessness. While harm reduction and free access to health and medical services absolutely need to be improved and made widely available, focusing only on these two things facilitates the tunnel vision that always seems to leave out capitalism as the primary source of so much suffering.


The capitalist system isn’t broken either, and if the out-of-touch interview with Schnitzer  mentioned above shows anything, capitalism is working exactly as intended by further enriching the wealthy while trampling over those on the bottom.


While the effects of capitalism’s growing wealth inequality is made visible to Portlanders, politicians, in true American individualistic fashion, love to place the blame and the responsibility squarely on the houseless themselves.


Betsy Johnson is campaigning for governor as an Independent, and blames the houseless for their own lack of personal responsibility, while hopeful Portland City Commissioner candidate Rene Gonzalez says those who refuse offered shelter should be jailed or cited. Besides the eye-roll worthy comment from Johnson, not mentioned is the fact that shelters often have prohibitive contingencies such as curfews, drug and alcohol screenings and limits on personal belongings being allowed. It’s no surprise that people are less than thrilled to have to choose between shelter or keeping whatever belongings they have left after being thrown away or stolen by Rapid Response or the City of Portland.


Popular narratives magically avoid looking at capitalism and its growing wealth inequality as a cause while also skirting around the solution of providing immediate and affordable permanent housing.


The city of Houston is at least trying to provide more affordable housing. Of course, those trying to find housing in the city would run into the same NIMBY issues of apartment complexes not wanting to participate in such programs or homeowners not wanting affordable units nearby to bring down their property values.


Hearing wealthy property owners, real estate developers, business and neighborhood associations all talk about bringing Portland back to what it was once before seems an awful lot like NIMBYism mixed with MAGA. For so many marginalized people, America was never great to begin with. When people wish for things to return to being great and beautiful again, that should raise some eyebrows on not only what they define as great, but who they think will benefit from this return to greatness.


NIMBYism in Portland—and Oregon in general—used to mean using exclusionary laws that kept Black people out after the sun went down. Aided by the continued gentrification of Portland, marginalized communities have continually been pushed outwards. While NIMBYism is mainly based in classism it’s easy to see how it parallels and is often intertwined with racism.


If looking around and seeing tents everywhere makes you feel uncomfortable, imagine how uncomfortable it must be to have to be constantly displaced by sweeps that end up with the loss and theft of personal belongings—or to constantly be looked down upon, hated and threatened on a daily basis by politicians, the Portland Police and Portlanders alike.


We should feel uncomfortable. But just like the source of the increase in houselessness is being falsely identified in bad faith, our discomfort shouldn’t be directed towards the houseless or those who help, protect and support them. To do so is victim-blaming.


If I were to agree with these wealthy business and property owners about anything, I would say that it would be nice to return so-called Portland to how it used to be. We should return these unceded lands back to the descendants of the Indigenous people that inhabited them before settler colonialism brought violence and genocide. Although, I have a feeling that is not what they mean when they talk about a return to greatness.