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Houses and the changing Portland dream

BRIAN LIBBYSpring in Portland is when we celebrate great houses.

Whether it’s the contemporary architecture of April’s American Institute of Architects Homes Tour, the midcentury-modern gems on Restore Oregon’s May tour, or the old houses comprising May’s Irvington Home Tour — all of which annually report robust ticket sales — we love to explore the places we call home.

As an architecture writer contributing to a lot of glossy home magazines, I get to see even more of them. Just last month, I visited the circa-1938 Sutor House by legendary architect Pietro Belluschi, and as we walked its grounds the homeowner pointed out a cluster of additional gems by Belluschi and fellow midcentury master John Yeon (like the masterful Watzek House) within a stone’s throw. My Southeast Portland neighborhood, Ladd’s Addition, is teeming with National Register-listed historic residences.

Portland may not be a city with soaring landmarks like our big-city neighbors to the north and south, but from 19th-century Victorians to early 20th-century bungalows to the boxy, glassy-ensconced gems of today, we have a first-rate collection of houses.

Yet a house in Portland has never been more unattainable for so many. Although this is largely a national problem — rates of home ownership are down across the board — we’ve also become a victim of our own popularity.

For the past three years, Oregon has been the number-one moving destination in the United States (according to United Van Lines).

Portland home prices jumped more than 11 percent from 2014 to 2015, the biggest increase in the country, and last year we experienced the nation’s largest average rent increase (according to real estate company Zillow).

As we become a much bigger city over the ensuing years — one former head city planner even believes we’ll eventually overtake Seattle — living in a detached, close-in single-family residence is going to become an unrealistic goal for more and more citizens, even those in the middle class. But maybe that’s okay.

COURTESY: BRIAN LIBBY - The Watzek House in Portland is one of architect John Yeon's masterful designs.For most of our lives, living here has meant you could have it both ways: close in enough to walk to a host of amenities, yet still affordable enough to have a yard. But now the Portland dream for those of us outside the upper income brackets will increasingly mean living in an apartment, condo or ADU.

That’s the price we must pay for living in a great city where people want to be. But it doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice what makes our city so desirable: its vibrant, eclectic spirit.

As I write this, I’m not at home in Portland but traveling in Berlin, which serves as an even greater reminder that all cities continually change. The further I get from Oregon, though, the more I cherish the alchemy of urbanity and wondrous nature that is our home. And yet while I love the houses of Portland, what’s great about living in our city transcends housing types.

I’ll take a Rose City apartment and an easy walk to the park (or drive to Mt. Hood) over a house and a yard in sprawled-out Phoenix or Houston in a heartbeat.


Brian Libby is a Portland freelance journalist, critic and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dwell, among others. His column, Portland Architecture, can be read monthly in the Business Tribune or online at: portlandarchitecture.com


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