Portland’s Neighborhood Associations Going Strong After 40 Years

Portland's neighborhood associations have generated news lately, from Montavilla's resolution resisting the City's efforts to clear homeless camps, to controversy over whether transient persons can vote in Overlook's meetings, and whether Eastmoreland should establish a historic district. This recent surge in discussion of neighborhood associations made me wonder: what authority do these organizations really have?

The City of Portland recognizes 95 neighborhood associations, grouped into seven "district coalitions." The Office of Neighborhood Involvement ("ONI") publishes standards and guidelines to which the associations must adhere. In return, the associations receive funding, assistance, and official recognition (read: political clout). According to ONI's 2017-18 budget, coalitions and associations will receive over $2.5 million this fiscal year, amounting to a quarter of ONI's total annual budget.

The associations and coalitions do not wield governmental power. By way of voting on resolutions or lobbying the City, they provide community input to the City on decisions such as permitting or law enforcement. But neighborhood resolutions are not laws or ordinances. For example, the recent Montavilla resolution "urges" the City to stop sweeping homeless camps in the neighborhood, warning that they "may be unconstitutional" and may constitute "human rights violations." Theoretically, a neighborhood association could sue a government on behalf of its members or in its own right, but the neighborhood resolution does not actually prohibit the City from sweeping camps in the neighborhood.

Despite not having governmental power, neighborhood associations can make powerful allies or enemies in efforts to influence how, when, and where Portland continues to develop. Some commentators have noted that, in a City whose Council is not based on geographic districts, the neighborhood associations "can play an outsize role as chief cheerleaders" for geographically-centered issues, and have a history of success. Still, others have highlighted criticisms that neighborhood associations have failed to represent the breadth of demographics and viewpoints of their residents. Some residents have even accused Portland developers of injecting their agendas through the neighborhood associations, ghostwriting proposals to be presented to the City Council and added to Land Use Board of Appeals records. Other sources cite neighborhoods' current and historic resistance to rapid development.

I don't always agree with some of Portland's neighborhood association resolutions and statements, including from my own neighborhood. But I take heart in the enthusiasm with which my community engages neighbors, organizes before governmental bodies, and looks critically on itself. Are you interested in getting involved in your own neighborhood association? Association meetings are open to the public, and you can find your association here.

Map of Portland Neighborhood Associations and District Coalitions provided by the City of Portland.