Welcome to the first installment of Metro's new Regional Snapshots, a quarterly check-in on how the Portland metropolitan region is changing and why it matters for issues we all care about. Each Snapshot features data, explorations of key issues and personal interviews with people whose lives are directly affected. Find more Snapshots
To understand where we are with housing the region today, it's helpful to have a few basic stats in mind.
1. We're a big region, but not huge.
According to U.S. Census estimates, the 7-county Portland metropolitan area had approximately 2.35 million people in 2014, living in 710,000 housing units, including houses, apartments and condos. The average household had 2.6 people, which might be a family or roommates.
By population, Portland is the 24th-largest metropolitan area in the country. We have about half as many people as Boston and twice as many people as Salt Lake City. The greater Pittsburgh and San Antonio regions are about the same size.
But the 7-county area is quite large, including counties as far-flung as Skamania County, Washington, and Columbia County, Oregon. Zooming in, about 1.5 million people live within the 3-county Portland regional urban growth boundary.
2. People are moving here – a lot of people.
From the sight of cranes along the downtown Portland skyline and new apartments in inner neighborhoods, to new neighborhoods at the region's edge, it seems like signs of growth are everywhere we turn. But how much are we growing, and how fast? And where are these new people coming from?
In short, many are coming from somewhere else in the country, and it's adding up. Oregon is the number one state for inbound migration for the second year in a row.
A state of migrants
Find any two people in Oregon and there's a strong chance one of them came from a different state; that's true of 51 percent of Oregon's population. Nationally, 68 percent of Americans live in the state where they were born.
And the Portland region's growing faster than most of the country, too. The region’s growth rate was the 15th-highest among the country’s largest metro areas from 2013 to 2014.
Take a look at these numbers:
But different parts of the region are experiencing different sources of growth.
For instance, between 2000 and 2009, Clackamas and Washington counties primarily grew due to people moving from other counties around the country. Most of Multnomah County’s growth in that period was the result of natural increase – in other words, more people being born than dying in the county.
Where’s everybody coming from?
Mostly, from California. From 2007-08 to 2009-10, four of the top five cities contributing to the Portland region's growth were Californian. (New York City was the only non-Californian city in the top five.) On the other hand, the region is losing people to Seattle, Austin and Houston.
Given how fast our region is growing, many people have started to wonder where all of these new people are going to live. Do we have enough homes to accommodate long-time residents and newcomers alike? How much are we building and where?
3. The region’s still dominated by single-family houses.
Single-family homes currently comprise the majority of the housing stock throughout the region, although the percentage varies significantly between counties.
For example, the housing supply in the more urbanized Multnomah County is almost 40 percent multifamily housing.
In Clackamas County, which is more suburban, the percentage is about half that.
Homeownership tends to be higher in areas with more single-family housing.
To see all of the multi-level buildings popping up in the downtown areas, one might think that high-rise apartments and condos are all we’re building.
But between infill development in existing residential neighborhoods and new developments on the edges of the region, we’re actually building more single-family housing, too.
In fact, forecasts predict that this will continue to be the case well into the future – single-family homes are going to continue to dominate our housing mix.
4. Building is happening where it’s meant to go. Well, mostly.
If you look at a where developers have applied for building permits over the years in the video below, you notice a few things.
First, we can see that the urban growth boundary has served its primary purpose – containing sprawl and protecting nearby farmland and natural areas – fairly well. While exurban areas – those outside the growth boundary – have seen some low-density housing development over the years, the vast majority of new development is being built within the designated urbanized areas.
Second, single-family housing construction has occurred throughout the region – not just on the fringes where there are large swaths of undeveloped land added to the urban growth boundary. Many builders are taking advantage of vacant land closer in to the downtowns and opportunities for infill development in existing neighborhoods.
New multifamily housing permits tend to be concentrated along transit or commercial corridors and near downtowns, where local governments have generally zoned for higher densities.
Keep in mind that these maps show the number of applications for building permits. An apartment containing hundreds of housing units only requires a single permit. It’s therefore also important to look at the number of new housing units being built.
Communities are adding hundreds of new units to downtowns and along major transit lines as developers respond to a growing desire for walkable neighborhoods with easy access to commercial amenities, dining and entertainment.
5. The Great Recession may be over, but it’s still squeezing our housing market.
But are we building enough? With one of the tightest rental markets in the country – the vacancy rate in the city of Portland currently hovers under three percent – and housing prices on the rise, it feels like demand is outpacing supply.
Part of the pinch we’re feeling now is an after-effect of the Great Recession. After the housing bubble burst in 2007, new construction dropped to almost nothing. It wasn’t until 2012 that we really started to see a resurgence of the market.
But the population didn’t stop growing during the Recession.
Between 2000 and 2015, the region added nearly 100,000 new households. We’re still playing catch-up from those years.
6. Are we running out of land? In a word: no.
Every few years, Metro and local governments work together on something called the Buildable Land Inventory, an analysis of land inside the urban growth boundary that’s vacant or underutilized, and thus theoretically available for development.
The most recent Buildable Land Inventory shows that based on local zoning, we're far from running out of room – in fact, there's room for 400,000 new housing units. Of those, roughly 118,000 could be single-family houses, based on current zoning.
Adding acres, mixed results
The region has brought 31,000 acres of undeveloped land into the urban growth boundary since 1979 to accommodate the demand for new housing and other development. That's like adding two Hillsboros or nine Portland International Airports.
But despite these expansions, the vast majority of growth still happens within the original urban growth boundary, as seen in this map of permits:
In fact, of all of the developable land added to the urban growth boundary since 1998, just eight percent of the expected housing units have been built.
With so much demand, why is available land sitting empty?
There are a number of reasons. We explore those in the next part of this Regional Snapshot.