Portland Takes Database Of Unreinforced Masonry Buildings Offline

By Rebecca Ellis (OPB)
Portland, Ore. May 21, 2020 6:15 p.m.

Want to find out if you live in a Portland building particularly vulnerable in an earthquake? You won't be able to do it online any longer.

Portland has quietly agreed to take down its online database detailing the approximately 1,600 old brick and stone buildings in the city considered likely to collapse in the next major earthquake.


Related: Portland City Council Reconsiders Rules For Unreinforced Masonry Buildings

These structures, known as "unreinforced masonry" buildings (or URMs in technical speak), have been a source of controversy in recent years. Last fall, the city walked back an ill-fated ordinance that mandated large warning signs be posted on these buildings. That was after a group of building owners sued the city, accusing them of devaluing their property by burdening them with a sign that acted as a scarlet letter. A judge ultimately issued a temporary injunction against the requirement.

While the placard mandate has disappeared, the database listing these buildings remained — until last week.

E.D. Mondainé, the president of Portland’s chapter of the NAACP, led the latest push to get the list taken down, citing inaccuracies in the database that made it unreasonably difficult for building owners to get loans and investments.

In a letter to the City Council dated May 1, Mondainé said the database often included buildings that shouldn't be there, either because the owner had since spent the money on the necessary safety updates or there'd been a mistake that landed the building on the list in the first place.  And, in the midst of a pandemic, he warned it could hamper the economic recovery for the city's black residents, as many of Portland's unreinforced masonry buildings are in historically black neighborhoods.

A sign on a business in Northeast Portland warns visitors that the building is constructed of unreinforced masonry on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019.

A sign on a business in Northeast Portland warns visitors that the building is constructed of unreinforced masonry on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019.

Courtney Sherwood / OPB

“The NAACP calls — unequivocally — for the leadership of this city to remove any and all burdens on these property owners and any obstacles to their recovery from this crisis. The existence of the list acts as a modern-day redlining,” the letter read. “Abolish the list.”

The Portland Business Alliance also wrote a letter in support of the group's push. Without the city offering financial assistance to building owners to upgrade their buildings, the alliance argued, the list "gives the strong impression it's only current purpose is to shame building owners into taking action many simply cannot afford."

The alliance said they would support a public database, but it would need to be rebuilt with "clear goals" and plan for a private-public partnership that would assist in updating the buildings to modern standards.

Related: Portland Officials Say Mandatory Retrofitting Won't Be In New Committee Recommendations

After a few brief conversations with Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, Mondainé said the city agreed to take the list down.

“They heard reasoning,” said Mondainé. “It was no real big struggle.”

Ken Ray, a spokesperson for the city’s Bureau of Development Services, which oversees the list, said the bureau believed the database was accurate. But after the concerns raised about perceived stigma, the bureau has taken it down for the foreseeable future.

The removal of the list will likely make it more difficult for Portlanders to find out if they're living in a building particularly dangerous during an earthquake. On the city's FAQ website about the buildings, people who want to know if they "own, rent, or do business" in an unreinforced masonry building are still directed to the online list.

After this story was published, the city changed the FAQ page to reflect that the list of URM buildings is available through a formal public records request.