Officials last year voted not to expand the region’s urban growth boundary. Combined with a hot housing market, homebuyers are being forced to adjust expectations.
Last year, after renting in Portland for more than two years, Hannah Risser-Sperry and her boyfriend Nick decided to buy a home.
Their eye was on Portland’s St. Johns neighborhood, a reviving but detached part of the city tucked 10 miles north of downtown where the Willamette River meets the Columbia. Their budget was $300,000, a number they thought would be fair for St. Johns—though they didn’t think so for long.
“When we started looking in St. Johns it seemed a reasonable spot to look because it wasn’t super close in, but had its own charm,” Risser-Sperry says. “But quickly we realized everyone noticed that, too.”
The couple quickly realized they would be up against overwhelming cash offers to buy a home. When they lost a 700-square foot house listed for $230,000 to a cash bid of $325,000, the dream of St. Johns was over. In a city outsiders know for its weirdness, they had become the most normal thing of all: prospective homebuyers locked out by Portland’s new rules.
“The main thing we were up against is there are a lot of people who have cash, who have exorbitant amounts of money for Portland,” she says, “who are able to just buy up any house you want.”
The Californians are coming
A $300,000 budget will elicit no sympathy from Portland’s larger West Coast neighbors. But the frustrating reality for Portlanders is that for so long, their city didn’t have to be like its West Coast neighbors. “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.
That isolationism is part of Portland’s nature: “Come again and again, but for heaven’s sake, don’t move here to live,” former Oregon Governor Tom McCall famously said. Today, however, it’s bristling against the city’s unceasing popularity.
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.*
Portland owes part of its popularity to a 1970s state land use law that requires every city in Oregon to surround itself with a tight urban growth boundary. The UGB is meant to constrict sprawl by determining where a city cannot grow. It protects rural land, the thinking goes, but in so doing it also privileges density, and the compact, walkable, transit-smart neighborhoods that come with it. If a city cannot grow out, it must grow up.
Last November, Portland Metro voted for the first time not to expand its boundary. It wasn’t much of a surprise; people want to live near downtown, not on the fringes, and the Metro area has plenty of developable land. But you could also say it was a vote to preserve the essence of Portland by protecting what it was not willing to risk: the pristine Willamette Valley land that surrounded it.
“The urban growth boundary is there to protect farmland, but in some ways it’s very much attracting people to Portland,” says Nathan McClintock, an assistant professor of urban studies at Portland State University. “People aren’t moving to Oregon to go without countryside. They’re moving to Portlandia, essentially.”
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
Portland State professor Megan Horst is working to dispel many of the “sustainability myths” beneath the idea of Portlandia that many people coming from out-of-state assume. Despite its significant commitments to sustainability, Portland still struggles with fundamental problems like poor air quality, lead in its water, insufficient bike infrastructure, pedestrian safety, and affordable, reliable transit.
When it comes to sustainability, she says, not everyone benefits equally, especially in housing. Communities of color are experiencing high levels of displacement in Portland, especially from close-in neighborhoods.
“One concern is, even if we are creating a sustainability utopia, it will only be for wealthy and largely white people,” Horst says.
The city tried to get ahead of the problem in June by approving its 2035 Comprehensive Plan, which features policies to curb gentrification and displacement, diversify types of housing, and incentivize affordable housing. Portland anticipates adding 260,000 new residents over the next 20 years, which, if true, means it will grow at its current rate for the next two decades.
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.”
Risser-Sperry and her partner did eventually find it themselves, 10 months and six bids after their search began. Their new house is 86 blocks east of downtown, nine miles away from St. Johns, one block from a busy Interstate, and had sewage problems. There were already 10 other bids on it.
“There was a cash offer and actually a higher offer as well,” she says. “And they picked us based on our letter.”
In this market, you have to create your own advantage. She’s a professional writer.
*CORRECTIONS: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that 1,000 people move to Portland every month.
Brendon Haggerty was incorrectly identified as the current chair of the Richmond Neighborhood Association. The current chair is Cyd Manro.