The dream of the ’50s is alive in Portland
The question now is whether the idea of Portlandia can survive its own city. Between 2015 and 2016, the cost of buying a home in Portland jumped from $369,500 to $412,000—the fastest-rising housing market in the U.S.
“Yes, people still want the dream,” says Alyssa Isenstein Krueger, a broker with Living Room Realty and a member of the preservation group Stop Demolishing Portland. “They want it more than ever now, because there’s this huge fear that if they don’t buy now they’ll never buy.”
But the more people who want it, the fewer who are able to get it. One of Isenstein Krueger’s client families moved from Los Angeles to Portland for its bicycle-friendly way of life, but after they received a 90-day notice from their landlord, they turned into quick buyers. They wanted the same Portland lifestyle they were renting, on a $300,000 budget. They found it, eventually, 113 blocks east of downtown.
“It’s a much longer bike commute than what they’ve had,” she says. “But that was their compromise—we need to at least live within transit and bike lanes. They are finding their own new Portlandia.”
One obvious solution is to build more affordable multifamily housing in neighborhoods where people want to live, says Mary Kyle McCurdy of 1,000 Friends of Oregon, a nonprofit that advocates for sustainable neighborhoods. But Portland’s current zoning laws are stuck two generations in the past.
Almost half of Portland—45 percent—is zoned exclusively for single-family dwellings, she says, while only 10 percent is zoned for multi-family dwellings. It’s a stale reflection of the post-World War II world in which Portland’s zoning rules were drawn up.
“In the 1950s, two-thirds of our households were families. Today, two-thirds of our households [consist of] one and two people,” McCurdy says. “We’re aging and getting younger at both ends; we come from different backgrounds and cultures. We need to catch up our zoning with our families today and for the future.”
McCurdy is working with an organization called Portland For Everyone that advocates for changing some of Portland’s zoning laws to allow for more multi-family dwellings in single-family neighborhoods. If builders are allowed to build duplexes, triplexes, quads, courtyard apartments and more mother-in-law units in Portland’s most in-demand neighborhoods, she says, then families like the one from L.A. might not have to move 100 blocks east—as long as they’re willing to trade in their dream of a mid-century bungalow.
But simply allowing for more density won’t necessarily lead to more affordable housing, Isenstein Krueger says. In fact, Portland For Everyone will only lead to a Portland For Even Fewer as developers buy the homes families want and then raze them. Even if multi-family housing goes up in these neighborhoods, it won’t be priced so most people can afford it.
In her experience, it’s already happening. One couple she worked with recently bid $375,000 on a home that was listed for $320,000 in Portland’s Eastmoreland neighborhood. A developer paid $420,000 for the house, she says, and now has a permit to demolish it.
“This whole idea that anybody is going to build affordable housing to replace the demolished housing is a load of crock,” she says. “Nobody is going to build affordable housing out of the goodness of their heart. They have never done it and they never will.”
Signs of the city to come
… Not all of that growth is going to be close to downtown, Isenstein Krueger says, but also in outer suburbs like Hillsboro and Beaverton. For Portland to truly be for everyone, she says, the city should prioritize making those outer corridors more livable, rather than change the face of neighborhoods that lack the infrastructure to take on any more people.
“Why do we have to destroy what we have, and what we’ve had for well over a century,” she says, “to make room for these mythical people that may or may not come?”
But signs of this future, denser Portland are already happening in some of the city’s most popular neighborhoods. Brendon Haggerty who is on the board of the Richmond Neighborhood Association,* which includes popular tourist corridors Southeast Division Street and Hawthorne Boulevard. Sitting in his quiet backyard near Hawthorne, you can’t hear the tourist traffic over the sound of spotted chickens toddling nearby.
It is the dream of Portland at its most intense, but also one Haggerty realizes may soon evolve. In the new Comprehensive Plan, the lot two doors down from his house will be rezoned for townhomes. No one in the neighborhood, he says, should be afraid of change.
“They’re NIMBYs,” he says. “The dream of Portland is not compatible with an approach to land use that protects the privilege of incumbent property owners. … To me it’s unquestionably a social justice issue. Neighborhoods like this provide access to a lot of opportunity for healthful and prosperous lifestyles, that you can’t get in other neighborhoods, and we need to be making that available to as many people as possible.”
And here’s PDX’s version of our foreign purchasers:
The Californians are coming
… “Keep Portland Weird” is a tired aphorism by now, but the truth is Portland has always been something weird: a city that could interpose between West Coast giants without being touched by them. …
Oregon has been the top moving destination in the U.S. for three years in a row, according to United Van Lines. More telling, however, is the number of people —more than 30,000 in 2014 alone—sliding up from California, many for high-paying tech jobs. The trend is particularly hard to miss in Portland, where about 1,000 new people move every month.