Ignoring the Reality of Growth Constraints

The young people who have moved to Portlandia like to eat out a lot, and as a result the Portland has more restaurants per capita than all but five other metropolitan areas in the country. However, the cost of eating out is rising because inexpensive restaurants are getting pushed out by more expensive ones that can afford to pay the rising rents required to stay in Portland.

This is just one more symptom of Portland’s growing affordability problem. In May, median home sale prices in the Portland area exceeded $350,000 for the first time. This is 4.8 times median family incomes, the worst Portland has yet seen. While sale prices might not perfectly reflect the entire housing market, they are probably pretty close, as Zillow estimates that the median value of Portland-area homes in April was $325,000.

Inexpensive restaurants aren’t the only thing that gets pushed out by rising land prices. Residents of a mobile home park in Northeast Portland are facing eviction as the owner wants to sell the land to a developer who will no doubt build dense, but much-more expensive, housing on the site. The residents are trying to raise $2 million to buy the park themselves, but this seems unlikely. At least four other mobile-home parks are also facing sale and redevelopment.

Mobile homes are cheap housing, and normally they occupy cheap land at or beyond the urban fringe. But since such land is off limits under Oregon land-use laws, few if any new parks are being created while old ones are disappearing. This is a completely predictable consequence of Portland’s urban-growth boundary.

Growth-boundary advocate Joe Cartright claims that “affordability is about growing up, not out.” He is simply wrong. Numerous urban areas in the country have “grown up,” dramatically increasing their population densities, in the last few decades, and most of these are also counted among the nation’s least affordable urban areas. Between 1990 and 2010, San Francisco-Oakland-Concord-Livermore densities increased by 27 percent; San Jose by 37 percent; Portland by 17 percent. Meanwhile, the densities of affordable urban areas such as Atlanta and Dallas-Ft. Worth declined.

As the chart below shows, density and unaffordability go hand in hand. On average, an increased density of 1,000 people per square mile is associated with a 0.64 higher value-to-income ratio. The correlation coefficient is 0.53, suggesting that density plays a greater role than most other factors in determining affordability.

This compares the ratio of median home values to median family incomes with population densities in 382 urbanized areas in the 2010 census.

Of course, Portland officials are ignoring these facts. They hope to stuff 260,000 more people in the city of Portland over the next 20 years by building more multifamily homes in single-family neighborhoods and more high-rise towers in and near the downtown area. To move all these people around, the city plans to build more streetcar lines–just the ticket if your goal is immobility, as streetcars have the lowest capacity of just about any form of transit and reduce the capacity of the streets they are on as well.

Meanwhile, Portlanders are talking about spending $100 million on a “homeless campus” that would shelter 1,400 people. That’s more than $70,000 per person or $280,000 for a family of four, which is far more than a four-bedroom house typically costs in cities that don’t have urban-growth boundaries. High housing prices aren’t the only causes of homelessness, but to the extent that they are, the region would do better to make housing affordable for everyone rather than provide huge subsidies for a few. That’s just one more economic reality that the city’s leaders are ignoring.


6 thoughts on “Ignoring the Reality of Growth Constraints

  1. ahwr

    Cully isn’t the urban fringe. There’s buildable land on the urban fringe. What’s it zoned for? Large lot single family housing? Or dense mobile home parks?

    Is the homeless campus just a shelter? Or is there lots of non housing stuff going in too (medical facilities?)

  2. The Antiplanner Post author


    Cully was the urban fringe when the mobile-home park was built in 1960. I grew up near there, and that area–which is near the airport–mixed industrial, working-class housing, and golf courses with large fields of nothing. Even now, the housing is fairly low density, with overly large blocks and huge backyards, probably due to the undesirability of living near the airport.

  3. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    with overly large blocks and huge backyards, probably due to the undesirability of living near the airport.

    Randal, aircraft (even large ones like the Boeing 747 and the even bigger Airbus A380) are a lot less noisy than they were 20 or 30 years ago, and the 747 may eventually go away entirely from most travel markets.

    Does that continued reduction in aircraft noise impact the desirability of the Cully area mentioned above?

  4. Frank

    C. P.,

    Are you saying that the take off noise from these planes is less noisy now? I can’t imagine that. I lived in NE Portland in the Concordia neighborhood. The noise from take offs was still pretty bad being a mile or two from the airport. The prop planes for cargo and mail were the worst as they landed everyday at around 5:00 from all over Oregon on the SW-NE runway. Buzzed just a few hundred feet over the neighborhood. So loud.

    And if it’s true that passenger jets are less noisy now than 20 or 30 years ago, do people know that and does it really affect the perception that living next to an airport is noisy?

  5. Tombdragon

    Frank & CP – When I was growing up in what you call “Concordia” we called the neighborhood Alberta – yes Concordia College was located in the Alberta Neighborhood. The Portland Airport in the 1960 ‘s hosted both jets and prop aircraft, we had Rescue Helicopters, F-33 Trainers, F86’s, F4 Phantoms, and C119 Boxcars – very loud – among other things at the Portland Air NG Base and the DC3’s, DC6’s, DC8’s, 707’s, 720’s, 727’s. etc. that all needed much more runway than today, so planes fly at lower altidudes on take-off, so yes PDX, Troutdale, Pearson Airpark in Vancouver, WA, and even Evergreen Helicopters – that used to operate out of the old Swan Island Airport, The Portland Speedway, and Portland International Raceway all contributed to the noise in NE Portland. It could be loud at 22nd & NE Dekum near where we lived, and at Faubion Grade School where i attended school. All of those venues are measurably less noisy, and quite compared to the 60’s & 70’s.

Leave a Reply