renovation & gentrification

Bee's picture
Tue, 04/05/2011 - 21:00 -- Bee

Construction has commenced on my Portland house.

When I bought the place in 1996 it was boarded and derelict, yard strewn with broken glass and stolen cars.

I pulled the boards off the cracked windows and had the cars towed away, but never made any other gestures toward renovation. We lived without a thermostat until Polly showed up in the middle of the night to install one, without bathroom doors until Donna offered carpentry services, without proper running water in the bath ever.

That particular indecency was only fixed when I moved out and Gabriel and Danielle moved in. They decided to have a homebirth and I agreed that proper bathing facilities were required; unfortunately, the plumber arrived hours after the baby was born.

Eventually they also tired of the squalid kitchen (was it really once a meth lab? Dunno, though there were mysterious burn marks all over the place) and arranged to replace it. During the remaining years of their residency the house also acquired a new furnace but essentially remained almost completely the same as the day I bought it, and therefore untouched by saw or scythe since, oh, 1960.

I sound like the most dreadful slumlord, but the issue is a bit more complicated than you might imagine. For one thing, I do not earn a profit from the house. The rent covers the basic 1996 era mortgage payment, but I pay over that for running repairs, management, taxes, and other charges. I could set the rent much higher, but I intentionally provide a subsidy to the people who live in the property. This is my utopian, idealist contribution to the neighbourhood and community: instead of selling or charging market rates, I rent to artists and musicians with children, who could not otherwise afford to live in a central location.

The neighbourhood has changed from a frightening ghetto into a swanky area frequently featured in the pages of Dwell and similar housing porn publications. Where once drug dealers crawled the curbs, now hipsters haunt boutiques. My house has not kept up with the changes, but that has been a practical and deliberate choice.

Think of this as anti-gentrification. That is what I try to do, when visions of dry rot keep me awake at night.

Beyond the social considerations, it took awhile to find the large sum of cash required to do the repairs. Then once I had enough to make a refinance possible, the mortgage industry faltered.

In the meanwhile Gabriel and Danielle moved out, and a new family moved in, christening it The Harmelodic House. They operated in the fine North Portland punk house tradition, using the basement as practice space, putting on shows in the living room, and I didn't want to disrupt their lives for what eventually became urgent repairs.

But now they have moved on to other adventures, and my beloved neglected house is finally getting the tender attention she has always deserved.

Foundation, porches, insulation, siding, floors, tiles, new custom windows throughout. . . oh, the pain! I can't go back to supervise (therefore breaking a key cardinal rule of sensible renovation) and have to rely on email and photographic accounts of progress.

Marisa is helping keep an eye on everything, and the contractor and his crew are fantastic. Though this is still the sort of thing a normal person would call "stressful."

The exterior has already been stripped away, foundation exposed, rotten porches taken down.

Found so far: newspapers from 1932 as insulation, and a mummified possum.