Think Out Loud

Portland organization aids Black homeowners in battling gentrification

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
Aug. 6, 2021 4:21 p.m. Updated: Aug. 18, 2021 5:42 p.m.

Broadcast: Friday, Aug. 6

A community organization in Portland helps Black homeowners renovate their homes in an effort to combat gentrification. We hear from Randal Wyatt, the founder and executive director of Taking Ownership PDX about how he hopes this effort can empower Black homeowners.


The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. A little more than a year ago, the Portland musician and activist Randal Wyatt helped fix up the home of a woman in need. It turned into the birth of a new organization. Taking Ownership PDX is made up of a whole bunch of volunteers, contractors, realtors, neighbors and businesses who together renovate and revive homes owned by Black people who have requested help. Wyatt’s idea is to help Black homeowners to age in place to generate wealth and to deter predatory investors and realtors. In the last year, his group has raised over $400,000 and helped 45 families. Randall Wyatt, welcome to TOL.

Wyatt: Hey, thanks for having me.

Miller: What was your starting point for Taking Ownership PDX?

Wyatt: I had a lot of people in the community reach out to me after the murder of George Floyd asking how they can be stronger allies for the Black community. I just came up with this idea. I’ve always kinda felt like group economics and that community mindset is what’s really gonna sustain us as humans. I just had this idea of raising money, using volunteers, and using it to fix up homes. Really the fixing up Black-owned homes and small businesses came from my studies at PSU. Just kind of learning how white supremacy is predicated on land ownership, and also learning about how this city has used racist real estate practices and predatory lending to basically displace Black homeowners.

Miller: Can you tell us about the very first project he worked on that then led to everything else? Wyatt: A woman who has been a fan of my band Speaker Minds for a while saw that I was presenting all these ideas of ways that we can do impactful work outside of protesting. She said, ‘I have this duplex and one of the units needs to be fixed up to prepare for her daughter to move in’ and she’s on disability. She just didn’t really have the funds to get it done in time for when her daughter needed to move in. Me and my good friend who is a contractor went over there, took a list of all the things that she needed done, and told my Facebook friends and Instagram followers what needed to be done. Originally I was naive, and I just thought we could just get a bunch of volunteers together, maybe get some materials donated and we’ll go out there and start swinging hammers and fixing this house up. There’s obviously a lot more to it. But a lot of people were just like, I don’t really know how to fix up homes, but here’s some money. By the end of the week or so, I had about $5000 to $10,000 in my personal Venmo account. I just started using that money to fix up the home and hire professional services to fix up the home as well.

Miller: How did the program morph and grow from there?

Wyatt: After a while, it just seemed like it was a great idea. People started giving me feedback. Like it was a brilliant idea. Then, more people were, ‘well, I am a homeowner, or my grandma owns a home and she can’t keep up’, and this and that. All these homes started coming in and I would present another home, and what they need, and more money came in, and after a while ... Because I started this really guerilla style, being that the social climate is changing, and I’ve been on a lot of committees and a lot of groups where we just talk about doing stuff, and there’s all this red tape, and that nothing really gets done. I was like, I’m just gonna go out here and do it and I’ll deal with the IRS Later. But once the money started really racking up, I was like, ‘ok I better really start getting legit’. It turned into an LLC. We have a fiscal sponsor which is who acts as our 501-c3, which is Friends of Noise, another Black-owned organization. Once we got them on there, the donations started rolling through them. We were able to provide tax receipts. Then the publicity really came in, we started getting tons of news coverage, and it just blew up overnight. Really feels like it.

Miller: Can you give us a sense for the kinds of work on homes that you’ve done the most, that you don’t do most often now? I mean, what are you actually doing for people’s homes?

Wyatt: Since there’s been such an influx of people coming in and we don’t really have a ton of funding, we know it’s all community-based, and we get some grants and here and there, but what we’ve been focused on, especially during the rainy season, is weatherization and life safety issues. I’m new to this field. I’m not from this field. I actually come from mental health, and youth-oriented stuff. I was a counselor and advocate and mentor before this, but one thing when I got into this work, I realized, okay, we’re helping a lot of senior citizens. A lot of these people can’t keep up with their homes, and they’re in really rough shape. They don’t have heat, they have a leaky roof, things like that. We did a whole lot of roof replacing, a lot of windows replacing, making sure houses are dry, safe, warm. That’s where we’ve been focusing a lot of our efforts on.

Miller: I imagine that there’s more need right now than help that you can provide. How do you decide whose homes you’re going to work on?

Wyatt: Well, obviously the amount of funding we have have decides that, but it’s also first come, first serve. We try to help the people that were first on the list. We prioritize lower income and we prioritize senior citizens, the people that really can’t get around to doing the work physically themselves.

Miller: What’s the connection for you between, say, installing new windows in a house, or helping people with a leaky roof and preventing gentrification?

Wyatt: It’s really the financial burden side of it. Originally when we started this, it was about raising property values, but the big thing now is, we want to just try to keep their homes safe, warm and dry. At this point we’re really just trying to alleviate financial burdens and also raise awareness. A big reason why I started this was to light a fire under the city and be like, ‘look, there’s a huge wealth gap between white and Black families’. We need to do some equitable work. I believe in reparations, so I believe we got to give money to these families that have experienced historical oppression, economic exclusion, and give them an opportunity to be on a level playing field and just raise awareness to the city that this is an issue that a lot of Black families have been displaced from their homes because of not being able to keep up with their homes. Once white families moved into some of these neighborhoods, the standard of upkeep was different, and there wasn’t the relationship that they may have had with their neighbors. A lot of white neighbors would call the city on these Black families or these senior citizens, and complain about the upkeep of their homes, which would put liens on their homes, nuisance fines, and that adds to the financial burden. That actually plays a pretty major role in the displacement of a lot of families.

Miller: I’m glad you mentioned reparations. You’ve said in the past that Taking Ownership is an avenue of reparations. Does that mean that you specifically want financial help from white people, as opposed to having Black people volunteering their time and giving their money to help each other?


Wyatt: I want it all. I don’t think I want it all, but one thing I didn’t realize is that a lot of white people who understand the history of America, who understand their privilege and that they have had a 400-year head start and have before public was considered multicultural when the public only meant white, and they were doing donation land acts and the GI Bills. that obviously sometimes excluded Black veterans and Brown veterans. They’ve been given handouts. They understand the oppression of non-white people and they want to do something. But our government hasn’t really given us a clear path of reconciliation and justice for that. I felt like why not create a platform where they can donate money and it’s going to get allocated straight to a section of the Black community.

Miller: What kinds of support have you gotten from individuals or local businesses for your effort?

Wyatt: Oh, so much. I can’t even tell you we’ve had hundreds of donors and that’s how we were able to raise over $400,000, a lot of real estate firms and groups donate and do do fundraisers for us. We have tons of people in the northeast and north area, which is historically a Black area. They definitely raise money for us. We’ve taken out some grants, through organizations or foundations here in Portland. It’s all over the place. It’s really just a community effort coming in. It’s really beautiful.

Miller: I’ve been struck by one of the groups that you just mentioned there, realtors, because as a group realtors have benefited from rising home prices, which is a key part of gentrification. The more a house costs, the more money they can make on transactions. What have you heard specifically from realtors who are a part of your collective?

Wyatt: A lot of them understand racist real estate practices and that they’ve contributed to gentrification. They want to do their part by either donation [or] donating a part of their sales. We get that a lot, where they donate a percentage of whatever they’re selling, where they’re doing their research about neighborhoods and trying to make sure that they’re not contributing to the gentrification. But it’s pretty difficult. We’re not in a society that allows them to not have that practice. Really it’s just about them donating parts of their sales, and kind of repent for what they’ve done. But it is difficult. It is difficult.

Miller: What have you been hearing from the people you’ve helped? What kinds of responses do you get?

Wyatt: It’s been beautiful. It’s honestly tears of joy. A lot of times they can’t believe it’s not true, that they’re getting these free services. A lot of times, like I said, we serve a lot of senior citizens. A lot of them have had their homes for 40-plus years and haven’t been able to get things done in the last 20 years or something like that. Just a lot of tears of joy, and they think that we’re a blessing.

Miller: What are your long-term goals for Taking Ownership PDX?

Wyatt: Really, I want to tackle the 130 families that are on our list, and provide free repairs or some service to each and every one of them. I would love to create Black homeowners, bring them back to the Albina neighborhood or north and northeast Portland inner city area. Like a woman did for me. I just bought a house in the Albina neighborhood in December. The woman, she found me through the organization. She sold me this house for what was left on the mortgage because she wanted to put an African American family back in a historically Black neighborhood. It would be great to kind of start a campaign around that, or be able to provide down payments for families in the future for Black and Brown families in the future so they can become homeowners as well, and we can get that kind of percentage of homeowners in those communities back up.

Miller: One of the things that’s unmistakable from everything you just talked about, if we are looking at all this through the lens of reparations, is how individual this is. We’re not talking about a systemic approach. We’re talking about whether it’s a real estate agent giving part of their commission or the former owner of the home that you just bought, making this personal decision to, I guess forgo a big chunk of money to sell the home specifically to you. What does it tell you that this is about individuals as opposed to the government or, more official systems?

Wyatt: I’ve never had a lot of hope in the political system. I’ve always thought everything needs to start from the ground up, right? I don’t really put a lot of trust in the government getting things done like that because I know there’s an agenda to continue to keep the system kind of oppressive. There are individual efforts, but all together their collective, right? Every donation I’ve gotten has been from an individual or so, but collectively it’s come together so we can do this work. I’ve been able to meet with the city, and talk about some of these issues, and they’ve been putting together new programs to be more equitable. I think that’s how it always starts. It starts from an individual kind of ground level. Once it really starts making a movement ... We’re also trying to push this model to other cities. I just met with some people in North Carolina that are going to start up their own Taking Ownership type of thing and, and Tacoma and Chicago. I think that it’s just going to be one of those things that starts out individual, it turns into a community effort and then it gets infectious and spreads around. I think eventually, systems are going to have to change.

Miller: I’ve heard you say in the past that you’ve never seen a level of interest in the work that you’ve been doing. As you mentioned, you’ve had your finger in various pots over the years, but a lot of them are either explicitly or essentially are tied to racial justice. You haven’t seen as much interest in your work from white people as you did last year when you started this. Obviously that was in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, and the racial justice protests and uprising that followed. But that was a year ago now. Has that interest continued? Or do you see it waning?

Wyatt: I think it’s continued. Last August we were able to raise $100,000 in one month. I think people might have been a little more activated back then. We’re still going strong, and the supporters are still there. And we’re still getting publicity, like I’m here with you. Honestly, it’s still going very strong. I think people still really see the need, and understand that this isn’t one of those things that’s going to happen overnight. It’s going to take a true dedication if you’re really an ally, really an accomplice of the Black and brown communities, and other marginalized communities. It’s gonna take ongoing work because, we do live in a society, in a system that is going to create the barriers, as many barriers as possible to continue to keep us oppressed and divided.

Miller: For people who want to help, what’s your favorite way for people to help?

Wyatt: The best way is donating money, because then we can use that to hire professional services to get really quality work done on homes, big work done because a lot of these homes need that. Volunteering is great because we’ve now figured out ways to utilize volunteers more effectively. Especially now in the summer, we’re able to do a lot of the more basic work that we have volunteers do, like yard work, and clean up jobs and decluttering homes. But donating money is always the best, just because we can use it in so many different ways. Also partnerships with home improvement-oriented companies and organizations always helps. Like we just recently did a big job for a woman, and Birdsmouth Design donated their labor to install 13 new windows into this home, which was about a $40,000 job otherwise. That’s huge. That’s just as good as money. If you know any companies out there that want to volunteer their time for a project or something, that’s definitely huge as well.

Miller: Randall Wyatt, thanks very much for joining us today. I appreciate your time.

Wyatt: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Miller: That’s Randall Wyatt, Founder and Executive Director of Taking Ownership PDX.

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