The new parents who decide they want to live near a good school. The retirees who enjoy the privacy of a large lot. The office worker who wants a shorter commute.
These are just some of the types of choices people make when choosing where to live. How big a home or yard, if any? How busy a neighborhood? How long a commute? What price range fits the budget with the right amenities?
How people answer those questions shapes the future of a region: where development happens, what it looks like and how people get to and from it. Decision makers and builders want to make planning and investment choices that reflect these preferences.
An innovative study
To explore these preferences, Metro recently teamed up with several public and private sector partners to complete a first-of-its kind Residential Preference Study for the Portland region. The study used an innovative methodology to go well beyond what most basic opinion surveys can say about what really drives people to choose where to live.
Through a series of forced-choice questions presented in images and words, asked tens of thousands of times across the 6,700 survey respondents, researchers could isolate how different variables like price, commute time and home size impact people's decisions about the kind of neighborhood they'd like to live in.
How much a role do these tradeoffs each play? Depends on how you cut it. Researchers found that all else being equal, the variables they tested – including a 10-minute-longer commute, house prices going up a third, home sizes decreasing by 500 square feet and not having any single-family detached housing for sale – would each only lead small percentages of respondents to choose a neighborhood type different from where they live today.
Still, Metro staff note, even those small percentages could add up to tens of thousands of households choosing a different neighborhood type, some more urban and some less urban. And more research could be done to see how the variables interact with each other.
The study also asked respondents about their preferences without considering any tradeoffs. This revealed strong preferences for single-family detached housing, with suburban neighborhoods the most preferred kind of neighborhood among respondents. At the same time, most respondents reported wanting to have amenities within walking distance, but most also said they would like a home with at least a medium-sized yard.
Reading the tea leaves
As with any social study, there's the data – and then there's the interpretation. Leaders and stakeholders from throughout the region are already digging in to try to read what the tea leaves are saying, and how it should apply to future decisions about growth and development.
At a Metro Council work session on Sept. 9, Metro staff presented the study findings, alongside Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland CEO Dave Nielsen and Hillsboro assistant city manager Rob Dixon.
Listening to the range of findings led several councilors to wonder about finding a happy medium in regional housing supply: reflecting residents' preferences but also respecting numerous other regional values and needs, like protecting farms and forests, saving money on infrastructure and providing affordable places to live.
"It seems to me we need to find a middle ground," said Councilor Shirley Craddick, whose district includes the eastern portion of the region. "How do we find a housing model that meets the preferences of people and remains affordable?"
To Councilor Bob Stacey, who represents much of southern Portland, the study results should help guide what future neighborhoods look like in urban growth boundary expansion areas like South Hillsboro. "They'll be largely single-family neighborhoods but with a well-designed mix of land uses and easy access to nearby town centers or main streets," he said.
Stacey pointed out that the results also have relevance to planning in existing communities. "What can we do about making more friendly pedestrian connections between existing neighborhoods?" he asked, noting that respondents expressed a strong desire to have more amenities within walking distance. He added that the findings are significant for potential future redevelopment of places like declining shopping centers.
Metro Council President Tom Hughes pointed out that the study's findings about preferences are only one small piece of the puzzle that leaders must consider when they make growth decisions. "Preferences are only one factor in determining demand," Hughes .
Like other councilors, Hughes also reflected on the value of doing the study over time, to reveal trends in how the region's changing demographics also affect its preferences. "This will be a lot more valuable to subsequent generations of [Metro] Councilors who have several iterations of this study," Hughes said.
Hughes praised the work, but was circumspect on the influence the study would have on his thinking about the next urban growth boundary decision in 2015. "It's been a great thing to do, and it's an interesting study.” Regarding the decision, Hughes added, "It's not really conclusive in terms of deciding the way we should go.”
For his part, the Home Builders Association's Nielsen agreed that planning and preferences don't always have to line up. But he urged decision-makers to be aware of them. "Good planning is sometimes going to be a bit ahead of where people are right now," he told the Council. "But we don't want to be so far ahead that no one is following us. The challenge for us is: where is that balance?"
Read the study's executive summary and full results