On October 3, 2018, our city council will vote on a proposed placard ordinance that if passed will require owners of unreinforced brick buildings to post a warning that their buildings are unsafe. Has Portland ever required placards on buildings in the past?
Yes—over the years the City of Portland and the State of Oregon have required property owners of buildings in Portland to place various placards on their structures.
The earliest case of “scarlet letter” placarding in Portland that our history detective team uncovered is the 1913 Tin Plate Ordinance. Like the current earthquake safety proposal, the intention was to intimidate landlords. In 1912 the city was trying to clean up vice…it was very profitable for building owners to rent to a house out as a brothel. The intent of the ordinance drafters was to curb landlords’ rental practices, because they would not want to be associated with prostitution.
Starting in 1975, historic buildings in Portland participating in the state’s “Special Assessment of Historic Properties” property tax abatement program have been required to post a plaque. In the oldest such program in the country, to receive the property tax freeze “an approved plaque provided by the Oregon SHPO must be installed on the building.” This is similar but distinct from the bronze plaque that owners of properties listed in the National Register may purchase and place on their building.
In 2007 Portland’s fire marshal started posting red “U” signs on Portland buildings. They warn firefighters in the field that the building is unsafe and to ask dispatch about the special safety precautions before barging into the building. The “U” stands for “unsafe” (not “unoccupied”—many buildings bearing the red “U” are not vacant).
The building owner always seems to have had a choice: to stop renting to prostitutes, to pay the full property tax, to bring the building up to fire code, or to bring the building up to seismic code.
“Is there any hardship on anybody to merely acknowledge what he owns?” October 29, 1912. Oregon Daily Journal, p 8.