"City of the Future" is a podcast that explores ideas and innovations that could transform cities, and this season is all about the ideas and innovations that could lead to more equitable development. In this episode, hosts Eric Jaffe and Vanessa Quirk interview a Portland artist, Cleo Davis, associate professor of affordable housing Marc Norman, and fourth-generation Black Portlander Rukaiyah Adams, Board Chair of the Albina Vision Trust.
Cleo Davis: So the property that we’re headed to right now was a property that my grandmother and father purchased as an investment property, and this was in the 1980s.
Vanessa Quirk: Cleo Davis is an artist in Portland, Oregon. And he’s driving me to see a house in the historically Black neighborhood of Albina. It’s a house that tells an important story — not just for Cleo, but for all of America.
Vanessa Quirk: Cleo pulled into a street in a quiet, residential neighborhood with leafy trees. We got out of the car and arrived at a property with two buildings: a large house to our right and a small house in the back. When his grandparents purchased the property in 1982, Cleo told us that the lot with the larger house contained an even larger, 7-unit apartment building. Cleo picked up the story where he’d left off.
Cleo Davis: So in ’82, that was also the time of the blight and nuisance ordinances. So, you redline, disinvest, no funds can come into the community, and you are not allowed to get insurance. So now you’re perpetuating what folks would legally term as blight. So now that it’s blighted, you get what’s called red-tagged. So that’s really what happened to this property here. Once you get red-tagged, good luck trying to get out of it.
Vanessa Quirk: Cleo’s grandmother went to the city council to petition the orders to demolish the buildings on her property that had been red-tagged. The Council decided to let the smaller building remain, even though, according to Cleo, it was the one in worse shape.
Cleo Davis: That’s almost the plight of Black folks in this country is a lot of unnecessary dealings. You know.
Vanessa Quirk: Yeah, I can tell you can still feel it. I can hear it in your voice a little bit. It’s still a painful memory, obviously.
Cleo Davis: Yeah. And it’s like, it’s not just us, though. You know?
Vanessa Quirk: Yeah.
Cleo Davis: So many other families have this similar story. And they may not have the documentation to show it, or everything got demolished, and they had to move.
Vanessa Quirk: In the end, The Davis’ lost a structure, but were able to keep their property and stay in the neighborhood. In the 80s and 90s, they witnessed the worst years of disinvestment and drugs. But then, in the 2000s, things started to change in Albina radically.
Vanessa Quirk: This neighborhood, the houses are big. It looks like a pretty well-to-do neighborhood.
Cleo Davis: Well, it is now. This thing is a million bucks.
Vanessa Quirk: Really? Wow!
Cleo Davis: But all of this used to be black folks.
Vanessa Quirk: I see a local church here on the right.
Cleo Davis: White folks bought that. Used to be a black church.
Vanessa Quirk: Right, right. Of course.
Cleo Davis: Now it’s like Airbnb or something.
Vanessa Quirk: Oh my God, no, really?
Cleo Davis: Mmhmm. I’m telling you, Portland is crazy.
Vanessa Quirk: But for Cleo, nothing epitomizes the craziness more than Williams Avenue. Back in the 40s, when Albina was a predominantly Black community, Williams was the main thoroughfare. As we were walking, Cleo would point down to the sidewalk from time to time, showing me an art project he and his wife complete, plaques embedded in the concrete that tell the story of the black businesses that were here before.
Cleo Davis: This is doctor … I think one of the first black doctors in Portland. A lot of the buildings got taken down in the 80s and 90s through the blight, just like what happened with the seven-unit apartment building.
Vanessa Quirk: Cleo led us past busy restaurants, fancy grocery stores, even a hipster barbershop.
Cleo Davis: This is all new in less than ten years. It didn’t always look like this. It wasn’t always like this. When I’m working on this street, every day, I started to hate the street. The rents are high, and the whole legacy is being stolen. This was our street. You’re walking down the street, and the folks are looking at you like, “What you doing here?” “No, what are you doing here?”
Vanessa Quirk: I just imagine a future development where black owners can feel that they’re still taking advantage of the growth and prosperity that’s being accumulated without, at the same time, necessarily feeling like it’s no longer their own. There is a way forward to have both of those things.
Cleo Davis: There is. Here’s the thing, we have to create new economic development models.
Vanessa Quirk: Cleo’s right. And Portland isn’t the only city in the U.S. that’s struggling with the issues of equitable growth, especially in historically Black neighborhoods.
Eric Jaffe: But the way cities try to mitigate the harms of gentrification today is often by constraining development — things like, setting aside certain buildings or certain units for affordable housing or requiring developers to pay community benefits as compensation for building market-rate apartments.
Vanessa Quirk: But what if, instead, residents could benefit from development, and thus benefit from their neighborhood’s growth?
Eric Jaffe: And what if they could even have a say in what gets built? Whether they’re homeowners or not.
Vanessa Quirk: Welcome to City of the Future. A podcast from Sidewalk Labs that explores the ideas and innovations that could transform cities. We’re your hosts. I’m Vanessa Quirk.
Eric Jaffe: And I’m Eric Jaffe. And in this episode, we’re building off of our previous episode, “From Owing to Owning” and looking at new models for building generational wealth that goes beyond home-ownership.
Vanessa Quirk: These are innovations that could not just help folks participate in and benefit from their communities’ growth — but that could even expand our very concept of wealth.
Eric Jaffe: And even potentially begin to redress some of the racial inequities that have been baked into our housing system for decades.
Marc Norman: The top 5% of earners in the country, what does their asset mix look like? It’s all over the place. It’s cash in the bank, it’s stocks, it’s bonds, it’s portfolio investments, it’s houses. And then you look at a more working-class person, that’s a renter, and it’s savings, that’s about it.
Vanessa Quirk: That’s Marc Norman, who you may remember from our previous episode.
Eric Jaffe: Marc is an associate professor of practice at the University of Michigan and the Weiser Center for Real Estate’s faculty director.
Vanessa Quirk: As someone who has worked in affordable housing for years, Marc understands that low-income families are rarely thinking about diversifying their assets — at best, they’re working towards the dream of owning a home. But often, they’re just trying to get by.
Eric Jaffe: But, while homeownership is a valuable goal, there are downsides to it, especially if it’s your only means of wealth. As Marc pointed out, it’s not advantageous to have all your wealth locked up in one investment. Homeownership also limits your mobility, making it hard to move if you get a better job elsewhere.
Vanessa Quirk: But Marc told me about a wealth-building model that’s even more decoupled from an asset you own. It’s called a neighborhood REIT.
Eric Jaffe: A REIT!
Vanessa Quirk: Right!
Marc Norman: A real estate investment trust is a well-established, longstanding way of raising capital for real estate development of all kinds, office, commercial, residential. And that model typically has large-scale firms buying assets.
Vanessa Quirk: So with REITs, a company buys income-generating real estate all across the country on behalf of their investors. And REITs have been around and popular with investors since the eighties. But neighborhood REITs — those are brand new. The idea is rather than have your real estate assets all over the country, why not have them all based in the same neighborhood or district? So that the investments all benefit one community.
Marc Norman: The notion of a neighborhood REIT is having investments that aren’t purely looking for profit, but that is somehow creating a community benefit and also thinking very thoughtfully about what they’re investing in and how they exit those investments. So, they might take small-dollar investments, they might be from people that own buildings in the neighborhood or even renters. So, a much smaller dollar, more sort of hands-on notion of real estate investment.
Eric Jaffe: So unlike a traditional REIT, which is a tool for pro investors, just about anyone can afford shares in a neighborhood REIT. That way, when development takes off and the value goes up, that investor would earn income.
Vanessa Quirk: Right, and it can even include folks who don’t live in the neighborhood at all. I mean, it’s kind of a big deal, giving people a seat at the development table.
Marc Norman: And so, that’s very different, right? If I have a share in an investment vehicle, it means that I can have a say in what that vehicle invests in.
Eric Jaffe: Ok, it definitely sounds compelling. And I can see how Neighborhood REITs differ from Community Investment Trusts — as we learned about the last episode from John and Yonas, the CITs allow people to own a commercial building collectively. But the neighborhood REIT model is all about having community members invest side by side along with professional investors, hopefully piggy-backing off of and even benefiting from their expertise.
Vanessa Quirk: Right. Which, from the developer perspective, is quite compelling, you know? And that matters — for a model like this to work, developers have to see themselves participating in something like this over the long term.
Eric Jaffe: But I’m assuming there are downsides to this model? I mean, is a REIT always right?
Vanessa Quirk: How long were you sitting on that one?
Eric Jaffe: It just came to me.
Vanessa Quirk: Sure…. But yes, to answer your question, there can be downsides to neighborhood REITs.
Vanessa Quirk: First, there are a lot of questions you have to sort out when it comes to decision-making. Like how much say does an individual small-dollar investor get in the neighborhood REIT’s decisions, versus how much say should a big-dollar investor get?
Eric Jaffe: Mmm. Right, finding that right balance sounds super tricky!
Vanessa Quirk: Absolutely. And the second drawback is a risk. Even though you’re investing in many buildings throughout a neighborhood, and diversifying your asset mix in that way, you’re still putting your eggs in one neighborhood basket.
Eric Jaffe: Right, so it’s not quite as diversified a model as the original, traditional REIT model, where you have assets all over the country.
Vanessa Quirk: Exactly. And the last drawback is scale. You need a big project, a significant amount of upfront capital, and a willingness to commit a lot of time and money to make a neighborhood REIT work.
Marc Norman: They’re regulated by the securities and exchange commission. So, you need to be accredited, you need to be certified, and you need lawyers. It’s not for the faint of heart or people that don’t already have the capital to start it up. So, that’s why they’re relatively rare.
Eric Jaffe: That all makes sense but one question I still have is: do these neighborhood REITs make sense for developers? Is there enough in it for them to take a chance on trying something like this out?
Vanessa Quirk: That’s still a big unknown. But if the developers have capital, if their project has the scale and all the qualities needed for growth — like, transit access, proximity to anchor institutions, demand for housing — then a neighborhood REIT should be a good bet, and increase in value over time.
Eric Jaffe: And, I guess another potential upside for the developer is you’re embarking on a project where, at least in theory, you should have the community strongly behind you — cause they’re actually going to benefit from the growth your development will bring. And of course, that is not to say that something like a neighborhood REITs is a silver bullet for community engagement and community alignment or affordability, but it is a really exciting new approach that, when combined with other initiatives, could really help folks generate wealth without needing to own a home.
Vanessa Quirk: Agreed, and while neighborhood REITs might not be super popular yet, they are starting to pop up. Sidewalk Labs invested in a startup called Nico, which became the first SEC-certified Neighborhood REIT in 2020. And, in fact, Marc told me about another exciting neighborhood REIT that’s just starting to take shape.
Eric Jaffe: Well, where is that?
Vanessa Quirk: Right where we started this episode. In Albina.
Rukaiyah Adams: There have been many attempts to redevelop it over the years.
Vanessa Quirk: Because it’s valuable real estate, I would imagine.
Rukaiyah Adams: 94 undeveloped acres in the central city, adjacent to public transit, on one of the most beautiful rivers of the West, within walking distance of jobs in the central city? Yeah.
Vanessa Quirk: I met Rukaiyah Adams on a cold, cloudy day in Lower Albina, about a thirty-minute walk south of Williams Avenue, where I went with Cleo.
Vanessa Quirk: Before I forget, and since there are no cars, would you mind introducing yourself? Who you are, what do you do?
Rukaiyah Adams: Sure. My name is Rukaiyah Adams. I am the Board Chair of the Albina Vision Trust. I’m a fourth-generation Black Portlander, and I carry with me a lot of history about this place.
Vanessa Quirk: Rukaiayh, who is an asset manager, left Portland many years ago. But she came back in 2011, for what she thought would be a short vacation. Ten years later, she’s still here. And, along with her colleagues at the Albina Vision Trust, she’s on a mission.
Rukaiyah Adams: So the high level objective is to lead the redevelopment of Lower Albina, centering Black history and culture, and to create dense, affordable housing in the central city for a diverse community.
Vanessa Quirk: Back in the 1940s, Albina was a large district encompassing Williams Avenue in the North and went to the river on the South. But when the Federal Highway Administration decided to construct the I-5 in the 50s, it did what it had done in African American neighborhoods across the U.S., it leveraged eminent domain — the legal right of a government or government agency to seize private property for “public use” — and ran the highway right through Albina. Everything around the highway and to the south was demolished. So one part of the Albina vision is to restore the community’s vibrancy that once called Lower Albina home.
Rukaiyah Adams: My great-grandmother, when she came from Shreveport, Louisiana, rented an apartment around somewhere right in here, an attic apartment, from a white family. And she, on her first day here, wrote in her Bible, which she used as a journal, “Dear God, I hope I’ve made the right choice in bringing my family to this place.” And this would’ve been a time when in the American South, Emmett Till was murdered for you know nothing, really. And this was a diverse, thriving community. It was also the jazz district in Portland. So it was lively and full of life.
Vanessa Quirk: Rukaiyah walked me through parking lots and over streets. Along the way, we passed by a huge 1950s modernist building of concrete and glass.
Rukaiyah Adams: It’s a beautiful building, it’s called the Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Basically, we destroyed the homes of Black Veterans, like my grandfather, to build a monument to White Veterans here. And despite its beauty, there’s a lot of pain. And again, this was all homes.
Vanessa Quirk: And where did your grandfather go, after it was demolished?
Rukaiyah Adams: Pushed out of here in the 1950s. They moved a little north to a neighborhood where there’s a hospital. They got pushed out of there in the ’70s, to the neighborhood where my grandparents bought a house. And in the ’90s, the gentrification and displacement of black populations happened in that neighborhood, and they moved further out to the edges of the city. But it’s been a 50-year, intentional campaign to displace. And so what we’re learning in the Albina Vision, is that it’s going to take a 50-year, intentional effort to replace people. It won’t happen in one shot. It’ll take me the better part of my life to restore the community that my great-grandfather and grandfather lived in, basically.
Vanessa Quirk: The first step toward restoring that community is to put forth a redevelopment plan that will make this neighborhood thrive and generate wealth. And they’ve got a lot of the ingredients they’ll need for growth: tons of transit lines that run through the district, they’re right across the bridge from downtown, and there’s tons of demand for new housing in Portland, just tons.
Eric Jaffe: And they have the scale, right? 94 acres is pretty big.
Vanessa Quirk: Yes! It’s big enough that Rukaiyah thinks they should be able to do multiple developments on the site, including more traditional development projects, like condos and hotels, to bring in revenue, as well as more community-focused projects. But then the next step is to ensure that the wealth is accessible to both residents and to people whose ancestors once lived in the neighborhood. That’s why Rukaiyah and the Albina Vision Trust have been talking with Marc Norman, to try and figure out if a neighborhood REIT could be one way of accomplishing that goal.
Rukaiyah Adams: We’ve been experimenting for the last two years in forming an affordable housing REIT so that people can invest in REIT shares and participate in the upside of their community, without having to buy an apartment. The challenge is that the people who were displaced here, when we used eminent domain, are not likely able to bring those same people back. But their children and grandchildren could be among them. There may be other new people who come to Portland who are of African American descent who have had similar experiences of displacement in other cities. We are trying to face that.
Vanessa Quirk: They’re still working out the details, but the hope is that residents and families who were displaced, anyone interested in the growth of this neighborhood can invest small dollars in the neighborhood REIT, benefit from the site’s new development and growth, and then have a new source of income from this investment. So, let’s say the grand-daughter of a former Albina Resident decides she wants to be a part of this project; she spends $500 on a share of the Albina neighborhood REIT; maybe she even votes on some of the developments that will go into the project; and then, a few years later, a number of the development projects do well — some retail buildings get leased up quickly, the hotel is doing great business, maybe an office building got sold for a great profit. Then she will earn money on her investment. So while the neighborhood REIT certainly can’t right all the wrongs of what happened here in Albina, Rukaiyah and the Albina Vision Trust are hoping that it’s a step towards helping folks access the multi-generational wealth that they were denied.
Eric Jaffe: So what are the next steps until this project comes to life?
Vanessa Quirk: While the Albina Vision Trust has acquired some parcels of the site, they don’t yet own all 94 acres.
Eric Jaffe: Ok — that’s not totally unusual for a really big development but it’s an issue.
Vanessa Quirk: It is. But, in collaboration with the community, they’ve created a set of six principles. So any developer who comes on to the project will have to follow those principles if they want community buy-in.
Eric Jaffe: What about capital? This is a big vision so I’d imagine they’ll need a lot of money.
Vanessa Quirk: Yeah, and I asked Rukaiyah about that too.
Rukaiyah Adams: One big challenge is financial, I mean, I’ll need to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to do this work.
Vanessa Quirk: It’s a good thing you’re really good at your job.
Vanessa Quirk: As we walked along the ridge, with the shimmering skyline of downtown Portland behind us, I asked Rukaiyah if it can be a hard sell — asking investors to put money into a project that’s new, innovative, and community-oriented.
Rukaiyah Adams: So now I’m going to go, I’m going to go heady on you.
Vanessa Quirk: Sure. We’re the City of the Future podcast. We can go heady, it’s cool.
Rukaiyah Adams: I carry in me the same DNA that my ancestors who were enslaved have. I have the same brain, I have the same capability, I am the same. But in 400 years, we’ve gone from being objects of capital to being subjects in control of the capital. And I’m one of those people I’ve made that jump in one generation. I have something to say about it. I know what it feels like to be downstream of some of the decisions that investors make. So, I’m hyper-aware of it, but in the same ways that we’ve destroyed communities with capital and capitalism, I believe we can actually rebuild them. So, that’s the kind of spinning in my mind, like how can we use wealth to be healing rather than extractive and destructive?
Vanessa Quirk: It’s like a long-term approach rather than like short-term gain.
Rukaiyah Adams: That’s exactly right. So that’s, I think of myself as a thousand-year investor. And that in me again is the DNA of my ancestors from 500 years ago. And, I imagine that 500 years from now, there’ll be some girl thinking about these ideas and I don’t want to betray her, I don’t want to disappoint her.
Eric Jaffe: Well, I’m inspired.
Vanessa Quirk: Oh, absolutely. I’ve been thinking about my conversation with Rukaiyah ever since we talked. What they’re trying to do with Albina Vision is really cutting edge — not just with the Neighborhood REIT, by the way, but in every aspect from community engagement to design. And they’re actively working with developers who are on board and ready to put in the work to make the vision happen.
Eric Jaffe: If they’re successful, this really could be an important new model for development in the U.S., I mean, this is a new way for people to access multi-generational wealth. It doesn’t require locking up all your savings into one asset, like a home. That’s a big mental and cultural shift for us.
Vanessa Quirk: Totally, and I’m thinking back to Cleo Davis, too, who we heard from at the top of the show. Like he does own a property in Upper Albina, and yet he no longer feels like he belongs in his own neighborhood. But with Albina Vision, he and his family could be investors in the future of this entire neighborhood, and they’d have a say in that future! So, they’d generate wealth — but without losing that sense of belonging.
Eric Jaffe: Wait… we never heard the end of Cleo’s story, did we? What happened to his family’s property?
Vanessa Quirk: Oh! You’re right! Ok, so to refresh your memory, we left Cleo and his family after the seven-unit building on their property had been demolished. And that lot sat vacant for decades, throughout the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, as the neighborhood changed around them.
Vanessa Quirk: Then one day in 2018, Cleo was walking to the City of Portland Archives, where he was doing research at the time when he noticed a commotion happening down his block. People were up in arms about an 1864 Victorian building, known as the Mayo House, that was in danger of being demolished.
Vanessa Quirk: So Cleo called up the city, and he said, “Hey, I have an empty lot nearby.” But he wasn’t just offering to save the house. He was asking for a zoning change — so he and his wife could turn this house into something more.
Vanessa Quirk: A cultural center and a public archive where people could learn about the discrimination that had occurred to his family, and countless other Black families like theirs.
Eric Jaffe: Wow, that’s really powerful.
Vanessa Quirk: It is! And Cleo and his wife are working with a local architect and design students to reimagine this building as a monument to the neighborhood’s Black history and future. But since they first imagined that archive, they’ve also learned about and gotten involved with Albina Vision. And Cleo’s hopeful that Albina Vision will be the greatest monument to Black creativity and prosperity that the neighborhood could have.
Cleo Davis: The Vision itself is monumental. It’s one of the first times that I know of in the history of Portland and maybe even in the United States where, really, we have an organization that is thinking in advance within the next 50 years of what our community, what investments, looking at policy, and shifting these things in order to have a vibrant Black community. Albina Vision isn’t just the hope of the Black community here in Portland. I think it’s going to change things, how we do things in the country.
Eric Jaffe: Thank you for listening to City of the Future, a podcast from Sidewalk Labs. Your hosts are Vanessa Quirk and me, Eric Jaffe. A big thanks to all the guests who made this episode possible: Cleo Davis, Marc Norman, and Rukaiyah Adams.
Vanessa Quirk: Thank you to Alison Novak, Jesse Shapins, and Chrystal Dean from Sidewalk’s development team, and a special hat tip to former Sidewalker Annie Koo. Thanks to our producer Guglielmo Mattioli, our advisor Benjamer Walker, and our mixer Andrew Callaway.
Eric Jaffe: Story editing by Rough Cut Collective. Our music is by Adaam James Levin Areddy of Lost Amsterdam. Our social media and transcripts are by JamiLee Hoglind. And our art is by the great Tim Kau. We’ll see you in the future.
Vanessa Quirk: Bye.