Snow covered an unprepared Portland the day 18 families learned they would soon be forced out of their homes. At the Normandy Apartments, the final day of 2016 came not with revelry but a rent hike so high it was essentially an eviction.
City leaders were stunned to learn Rigler Elementary stood to watch 5 percent of its students vanish by April. But it’s a reality some educators know all too well: Children don’t pay rent, but they are paying a steep price for Portland’s failure to solve its housing crisis.
Frankie Serrano, now 17, has cycled through three high schools in less than four years, after a spike in rents at his family’s North Portland apartment complex forced them to double up with relatives in Milwaukie.
Like Frankie, James Atencio is attending his third school in a short time — and he’s only 11. His family was evicted from their apartment by new owners that wanted to remake the place and raise rents. A disability makes it challenging for the boy to control his behavior in school, but he’d made progress and spent more and more time in a regular classroom.
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"It’s frustrating," said his mom, Nina Taylor. "You want to see your kid succeed and you want them to have a stable foundation to succeed in, and when you are uprooted, it throws everything off balance."
The newsroom analyzed school district data to get a clear picture of the problem and which students and schools bear the brunt.
The analysis revealed the phenomenon has heavily impacted schools and families in some parts of town, while sparing others. That has exacerbated educational inequities in a district that already delivered sharply divergent results for students of different classes and races.
One of every five students at César Chávez and Harrison Park schools showed up after last school year started or left before it was done. Both serve neighborhoods where more than three-fourths of children are kids of color.
At Rosa Parks Elementary and Lane Middle School, heavily non-white schools at the district’s north and south edges, it was worse: One in four students got hit with a mid-year move. At James John Elementary, it was closer to one in three.
"There have always been kids who have moved around a lot for one reason or another, but now there are way more of them and it’s almost becoming a sad new norm for a certain class of people in our city," said Andrew Baron who runs the after-school program at Harrison Park. "The disruption that causes both at the school level and the family level is just immense."
Baron had known Malik Logan, 12, since Malik was a shy first-grader. Baron calls him a great kid and then, with a grin, adds that Malik is one of those children who can be deeply frustrating but is deeply likable. Baron spent years learning how Malik worked, what he needed, how to draw him out, calm him down. By last school year, Malik had made friends and built relationships with the principal, the school counselor and his teachers.
But this school year Malik joined the ranks of children who disappeared.
Malik’s family had been homeless, living doubled up with various friends and relatives or in hotels, for two years until they finally landed an apartment in 2015. The new place was in a different school district, David Douglas. Even so, the then 10-year-old managed to stay at Harrison Park by riding two TriMet buses to school, then home each day. But when he hit sixth grade this year, his mom decided to switch to the district where they actually live and send him to middle school.
Malik still talks about going back all the time, according to his mom. She suspects that’s why he acted out during the first few months.
It was awkward going to a new school where most kids knew each other and he knew almost no one, Malik told The Oregonian/OregonLive. He didn’t want to go back to how he’d been in those early years at Harrison Park, when he’d kept mostly to himself.
"Most new kids don’t really talk to other people because they don’t know them," Malik said. "If you go to a lunch table and you really don’t know them, and everybody’s talking because they know (each other), it’s hard to really pick up a conversation."
When you’re the new kid, everyone notices and if other students spot "something wrong with you," he said, then they’ll start talking about you, or, worse, they’ll laugh.
Educators meticulously strategize about wrap-around services. They launch initiatives to curb absenteeism and spend years building close bonds with children who need help coming out of their shell — but all of that hard work is washed away in a move, Baron said.
Harrison Park sees both sides of the churn: For every student who disappears like Malik did, another arrives mid-year having been pulled from another school, district records from the past five school years show. During that period, 990 of its students made a mid-year move: 428 who left before the school year was up, 444 who arrived once the school year was underway and 118 more who did both, staying at Harrison Park for only a few months or even a few days.
Other Portland schools have similar or worse rates of disruption for students. At George Middle School in North Portland and Vestal K-8, for every 10 students enrolled last year, 2.7 students showed up after the school year started or left before the year was up. That matched the churn rate at Harrison Park.
At five other high-poverty, high-minority schools — all near the city’s edges, in North or far Southeast Portland — the streams in and out were even more intense.
Outside the cafeteria window, Baron can see a housing complex many of his students depend on. In recent years, the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon intervened on behalf of 12 families there that were facing a rent hike and worked with the landlord to help them stay.
Odds are against Portland families who rent: The average rental household in Portland can’t afford even a one-bedroom apartment in the city, according to an analysis last year by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. In arriving at its conclusions, the group applied the standard threshold that a family should spend no more than 30 percent of its income on rent. There just aren’t enough places to live that working families can afford.
Mayor Ted Wheeler agrees that problem needs to be fixed. Half of the 1,300 apartments built or preserved using a $283 million voter-approved housing bond will have two or more bedrooms, enough for families with children, he said.
He and the rest of the City Council also plan to make permanent a requirement that landlords pay ousted tenants thousands of dollars to help them relocate. The rule doesn’t apply to landlords who own only one apartment, but he and the council plan to change that, he said.
If the changes in the renter protection rule go through, Wheeler said, "we can help stabilize families in their homes.
"Displacement has a number of negative social consequences," he said "and among the worst is that an unplanned move hurts a child’s success in school."
Although Wheeler and the rest of the City Council have declared affordable housing a top priority, however, they have only arranged for the city’s housing bureau to complete 283 affordable apartments this year.
In the meantime, schools are called upon to shoulder demands from hundreds of families in survival-mode, reeling from a rent hike or eviction and with children bearing the effects.