The Way We Were and What’s Next for Portland

By Karen Hery


Government employees and citizen groups deeply involved in the development of Portland’s Comprehensive Plan have been pouring over community statistics detailing shifts from 1980 until now for well over a year.

Their goal in all that reflection on the past is to help predict and shape Portland’s future land use policies: shifting land use zoning to match up with predicted population growth and our changing demographics.

Age distribution in Portland
Age distribution in Portland

Not all of us have the time and inclination to sit in policy setting meetings or sign up to make citizen comments as votes go through city hall, but we all have our own decisions to make about where to live, businesses to start or retire from, careers to plan, children to raise.

So, while the comprehensive plan process proceeds towards city staff recommendations to city council in the first few months of the new year, a look through the statistics they’ll base their decisions on helps all of us make our own comprehensive plans for the foreseeable future.


It appears we can start by putting to rest the idea that Portland is a city made up mostly of young, barely employed adults.

A read through the statistics gathered by the City of Portland’s office of Planning and Sustainability reveals that from 1980 to 2004 the proportion of young adults, 20-34, in Portland dropped by seven percent. Currently, adults 35-64 make up a significantly higher proportion of residents than they did in 1980 jumping from less than 30% to more than 40%.

Portland may be growing up and growing older, but the real shift facing Portlanders of all ages is less about whether we will all be well-employed in the coming decades and more about how much of our income at all ages, stages and socio-economic levels will be going towards housing.

According to the Oregon Center for Public Policy, between 1990 and 2000, median home prices for the Portland/Vancouver area increased by 114% compared to 46% nationally

While median household income increased by over $15,000 between 1990 and 2004, with more rapidly-rising house prices, there was a more substantial increase in the percentage of households paying more than 30% of their income on housing costs.

Most sources consider housing affordable if rent or mortgage, plus associated costs such as utilities, costs 30% or less of household income.

Melissa Guthrie, currently running a branch of Mortgages Direct in the Mount Tabor area, has been in mortgage lending for 25 years.

“Portland has always been a place where my clients are pushing to achieve that balance and quality of life,” she says. “They know there is more to life than a mortgage payment.”

These days, she sees more first time buyers leaning on gifts from parents to make down payments and decisions by homebuyers who, in the past could afford 3-4 bedrooms, that are looking more now at 2 bedroom fixer-uppers that they can afford and add a room to later.

Rising housing costs are affecting homeowners and renters. Portland Multnomah Progress Board reports 50% of Multnomah County renters are paying more than 30% of their income for housing and utilities.

From the late 1980s until 1995, most residential units being permitted in Multnomah County were for single-family homes. Since then, most permitted units are multifamily (PMAR).

As homeowners and a growing number of renters, we are not yet living with housing pressures felt in California cities like Sacramento and San Francisco (with 44% and 41% of all housing costs above 30% of income), but we are edging for the first time above average housing costs percentages in Seattle.

Those most concerned about this shift are watching carefully to see if this is the potential end of what makes Portland such a great place to live or just a bump in the road.

It doesn’t take a public interest survey to know that people can take more creative risks when the cost of living day to day is a smaller part of the equation.  Those creative risks lead directly to a more vibrant economy.

Bridgid Blackburn, co-owner of Cargo Inc., a large and eclectic retail/wholesale distributor of both imported and local goods, is positively protective and passionate about the creative zone she sees going strong in Portland as long as Portland doesn’t become too expensive a place to live and work.

“Portland works,” Blackburn says, “because an individual can start something in their home, find an affordable small studio to move into next, join in with a collective group of artists and manufacturers in their field and grow larger and larger all in one city.”

“If we lose that, we lose what makes Portland, Portland.”

Blackburn and others who have invested time and energy into the Central Eastside Industrial Area find hope in encouraging city designers of the Comprehensive Plan to maintain existing light industrial zoning protective measures in the Central Eastside between SE Powell and 84 from the river to 12th Street and an engine of financial stability and creative drive.

The office of Planning and Sustainability reports in their plan summary that manufacturing sectors’ share of total jobs in Portland declined by 5-6 percentage points between 1980 and 2000 and the share in the service sector climbed by about 10 percent.

Lest we become a land of baristas all serving each other lattes, Portland needs a diversity of products and services. Some of those products and services need support, encouragement and protection.

Hope for the inner SE is in the smaller details. The number (not share) of metro area manufacturing jobs increased by 18 percent in those same decades of declining revenue, compared to a 9-percent loss of manufacturing jobs nationwide.

Just in case the economic pressures become too much, Tiffany Lee Brown is already thinking up her plan B. She is the co editor of Plazm magazine, founded in 1991 by a group of artists,

“If a large enough group of us get together and pick another still affordable place to be, we can start this all over again.”

Time will tell if Portland holds onto our creative, eclectic spirit through the influx of a growing population and rising housing costs.

For now, the statistics, due to be updated, say we are holding our own.

In the 2005 Annual Citizen Survey by Neighborhood, from City of Portland Audit Services Division, the majority of neighborhood residents rank overall livability as good or very good.

Generally, people living on the west side and in closer-in eastside neighborhoods are most satisfied with the city’s overall livability.

The comp plan and our own plans will determine how much this is still true by the time all this planning towards shifting land use zones is through.

To follow and comment on the development of the Comprehensive Plan, Plan Update website at:


The Way We Were and What’s Next for Portland

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