Urban Habitat in the Times of the Pandemic
What do you think of when you hear “Urban Habitat?” I am an architect and an immigrant in my mid thirties, and I think of three apparently disparate things: a hipster coffee shop, Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67, and homeless encampments in Portland, Oregon, where I used to live.
Due to the pandemic, for a while, the time has stopped (for everyone other than essential workers, like medical and grocery employees). Days lasted longer and distances did not exist, as there was nowhere to go. The clockwork of 9-to-5, 5-to-10 and graveyard shift workers came to a sudden halt. Their daily rhythms and socially acceptable labor became nonessential, the only bizarre exceptions being construction workers and handymen — a nod to the Great Depression and the great American obsession with a perfect lawn, mown by another’s hands.
Unemployed houseless folks, who never cared if it was a Thursday or a Sunday to begin with, increasingly made use of sidewalks. But unlike in usual times, Portland institutions suddenly did not want them to move out of the way:
“Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers.”
Officially, camping is “prohibited on public property,” but Portland has a history of homeless camping along streets, in city parks, and by highways. Normally the city or the Oregon DOT reluctantly remove campsites, usually after complaints from residents or businesses. When the quarantine began in mid-March, Portland raised the “risk score” threshold required to trigger campsite cleanup. By late-April Portland’s Office of Management and Finance decided not to clear the camps at all, unless someone’s life — resident, homeless camper, motorist, or pedestrian — was in danger. By late-May curated tent villages appeared around town, while Jupiter, one of the city’s boutique hotels, welcomed immunocompromised homeless individuals in need of relocation from regular shelters. Unlike the ardent takeover of the Minneapolis Sheraton dubbed Sanctuary Hotel, this initiative was organized by the city, and is still successfully operating today.
The architectural forms produced through the COVID-19-related guidance are peculiar. The city’s request to leave 12 feet between tents seems largely ignored in informal encampments covered with large tarps to create ‘multi-room’ habitats. In some areas, tents multiplied in numbers, taking over entire blocks. Other campers have built larger, more permanent structures, since clearances became rare. The temporary and terminal closure of many Portland businesses has further extended the space available to campers on city streets: entrance portals and empty commercial parking lots became filled with tents and sleeping bags not just overnight, but for weeks at a time.
We are witnessing a rare Hooverville-like moment in American urban history: institutions and businesses are willing (even if just on paper) to let houseless people stay at their sites, rather than move them along . The old-as-the-world story of tramps, unwelcome wherever they go, has acquired an unexpected twist. The institutions and the homed individuals, now partially devoid of their control over time, seemingly surrendered their control over certain public spaces as well. Seven months after Oregon has officially entered the pandemic, the city is still willing to let houseless campers stay; not as much their physical possession or traces of their presence: “trash and debris, human waste, other unsafe conditions on private property.” Urban habitats sprawl like the Pacific Northwest flora, profuse, fluid, and often unaware of the ceremonious detachment imposed by the disease. The encampments are here for the time being, as for the duration of the pandemic our modern concept of time belongs to the past.
- Hoovervilles — makeshift housing built by homeless during the Great Depression.
Kateryna Malaia is an Assistant Professor of Architecture at the Mississippi State University. She studies the evolution of quotidian architecture in the times of socio-political change through the lenses of cultural practices and material culture, particularly in relation to the collapse of the USSR, and to the rising housing precarity in the North American cities. Malaia holds a PhD in Architecture (Buildings-Landscapes-Cultures Program) from the School of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (2019). She also holds B.Arch (2009) and M.Arch (2011) degrees from the National Academy of Fine Arts and Architecture, Kyiv, Ukraine. Malaia’s writing has been published in venues including East/West: Journal of Ukrainian Studies, PLATFORM, and Architectural Histories.