Social Experiment with Way Too Much Mix

Last year the Civic-Morrison complex on West Burnside was launched as a social experiment. Market-rate condos and subsidized housing for low-income renters have been put together side by side, designed so that people from different social classes will mix with each other. The idea is that instead of just living near each other, people would start mingling.

Margaret Bax, the city housing policy manager, has described the Civic-Morrison as “the wave of the future;” but she admitted that it is possible mainly because the Housing Authority of Portland owned the property on which both buildings are standing.

The original plan was to create a mixed-income neighborhood with low-income working poor and upper-middle-income households, but the plan took an unexpected turn when the Housing Authority ran out of money and had to ask for an additional $3 million from the City of Portland to complete the Morrison. The city gave the money, but only on condition that the apartment would set aside 45 units for the homeless as “permanently supportive housing.”

A recent Portland Tribune article discusses the kinds of tenants occupying the Morrison apartments which have been built for low-income workers. Most of them are in their 20s. Many hold college degrees but deliberately “earn less” through part-time jobs so that they can qualify to reside in these below-market-rate apartments. Only 6 units have children. One of the ex-homeless occupants smokes in her apartment, although smoking is not generally allowed in this facility.

The Civic, which is the market-priced condo in the same complex, is mostly occupied by young and single upper-middle-class individuals who found it interesting to take part in this social experiment. These are the same people who probably would move out to suburbia when they get married and have kids.

And where would this mix of high-income, low-income and ex-homeless people meet and interact? Perhaps in the common parking lot or in the fancy retail stores occupying the ground floors of both the Civic and the Morrison. Is this the kind of mix of people that the Housing Authority had in mind to create with public money? This is utopian thinking at its best.

Sreya Sarkar is a policy analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market think tank.