Best of 2016: Portland Housing Series

For planners, Portland is this magical place where we are taken seriously, our theories are respected (where they are not embraced completely) and rational minds prevail. At least, this is what we tell ourselves, those of us not from Portland. It's a little like the Minnesota myth we tell ourselves, that we're all nice and a little above average. It works because there is a grain of truth to it, despite the fact that things are never that simple.

I enjoyed my numerous trips to the Northwest this year -- I think I made four in total -- and am really proud that we have a strong contingency of readers and members there. As Colin Woodard suggests, there are a lot of shared values between the Northeast and the West Coast, although as any Strong Towns advocate will point out, the challenges are dramatically different. Most of what we find in the Pacific Northwest was built during the Suburban Experiment, including Portland. Despite the good intentions of all involved, the challenges of making this land use pattern financially solvent is overwhelming. I feel that oppressively every time I'm there.

I think it's easy for someone in Seattle or Portland or Vancouver to understand why Phoenix or Dallas or Atlanta is a financial mess. It's a lot harder for them to connect the dots about their own (above average) approach. I can never see Nassim Taleb agreeing to live in the Pacific Northwest, no matter how well planned it is. Actually, the more planned, the less likely he would be to feel comfortable there. For similar reasons, that goes for me as well. I really like visiting and I like the people there a lot, but magic is a lot about illusion. I get scared when people start believing in their own illusions.

What's the matter with Portland?

Questioning four common arguments about why housing is unaffordable in Portland.

"Last week was my first experience with Portland, Oregon. We've been trying to schedule a Strong Towns event there for some time so a trip has been long overdue, but still. When I was in graduate school pursuing a degree in urban and regional planning, it seemed like one out of four lectures contained Portland as a case study and that at least half of my class intended to move there upon graduation. It has a certain lore in my mind..."   Read the rest of the article.


The mechanism creating inflated housing prices in cities like Portland is actually relatively simple.

'While Portland is nice, it's not so extraordinarily nice as to defy natural market mechanisms. Portland could build more housing, but there's no evidence that housing is not keeping up with demand at current prices. Yes, Portland is cheaper than San Francisco, but so are a lot of places that are not experiencing such huge distortions. And there is decades -- perhaps centuries -- worth of developable property within the current urban growth boundary; the UGB is not creating an artificial scarcity..."  Read the rest of the article.

Suspicious Economics in Portland Articles

When the issue of housing affordability comes up again and again, it is always tied to the agreed upon narrative that Portland is growing and will continue to grow, world without end. I don't buy that.

"I'm hearing the frustration of many of you regarding my two articles on housing affordability in Portland (What's the matter with Portland and Distorting Housing Prices). In the history of Strong Towns, I've gotten this kind of feedback every time I've encountered a deeply held belief. And really, it's the deeply held belief -- the dogmatic adherence as if to a religious doctrine -- that raises my alarm bells...."  Read the rest of the article.

Spiking a Rising Tide

A fetish with density is spiking the rising tide of housing demand in cities like Portland. To make housing affordable, we have to deal with the cause of the spike.

"A wave laps up on the beach. The force of the surge pushes water up against the wet sand. The action is understandable, a rhythm that is quite predictable. Even little children find it easy to discern the areas where their feet will get wet from those places where the effort of building a sand castle won't be wasted. Up the shore is a seawall. The waves act differently there. When the water hits the wall, it explodes upward, the force of the wave ultimately dissipated by gravity instead of friction. Kids play near the edge of the wall, but not too close (unless they want to get splashed by the mist)...."   Read the rest of the article.

Difficult Choices

Our job as Strong Towns advocates is to share our message with our friends, neighbors and others in our communities, to keep bringing the conversation back to the persistent fact that our current approach is not working financially. 

"One of the reactions to my thoughts on Portland’s housing affordability emergency (their label) that I’ve found the most interesting is that my proposal is unworkable, Portland’s residents will never accept even small increases in density in their single-family neighborhoods. Chuck, you don’t understand the level of resistance. Better to get the most density where you can, when you can, and that is at the transit stops...."  Read the rest of the article.