Link to Owner Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr.



The prevailing sentiment among urban planners is that the Portland area is headed toward — and would benefit from — a denser future where more residents are living in condominiums, apartments and townhouses.

However, a recent survey of the people who live in this region ought to provide a splash of cold water on those notions. It turns out that only a small number of Portland-area residents want to live in such close quarters. Surprising or not, most people prefer to reside in a single-family, detached home — and, shockingly, a plurality even prefer the suburbs.

The survey was commissioned by the Metro regional government, which should be commended for its willingness to ask important questions. Now, however, the Metro council and staff must give serious consideration to the survey’s findings. Clearly, this survey challenges Metro’s narrative that the Portland area must continue to grow through infill and avoid expansion around the edges.

The regional government faces an essential question as it considers in 2015 whether to expand the metro area’s urban growth boundary. Should regional planners provide people with the types of housing choices they prefer, or should they instead tell people what types of housing they will be allowed to have?

The results of the recent survey are not ambiguous when it comes to the housing preferences of Portland-area residents. Four out of five — 80 percent — of Portland-area residents said they wanted to live in single-family, detached homes. Only 13 percent prefer an apartment or condo, and just 7 percent prefer a single-family attached home, such as a rowhouse or townhouse.

The survey itself is notable for its comprehensive nature. It was conducted by DHM Research, which used a variety of techniques: an online poll; a “managed panel” of 200 residents each from Clackamas, Clark, Multnomah and Washington counties; and a “public engagement panel” of roughly 5,700 respondents from throughout the region.

Participants were asked to choose which style of housing and neighborhood they preferred, and were then asked what factors — such as housing costs and commute time — might encourage them to change their minds.

Metro officials might be tempted to ignore or explain away the overwhelming preference for single-family homes. If they accept the survey’s findings, it will be difficult for them to illustrate how the region can stay within its urban boundaries.

Metro is mandated to maintain a 20-year supply of land for development within that boundary. It can justify keeping the boundary in place by projecting that a large share of future residential development will be multifamily housing. If that assumption falls, however, the boundary would need to be expanded.

Further complicating Metro’s urban boundary decision is the plain fact that the biggest chunk of land to come within the boundary in the past two decades is not going to be developed in the foreseeable future, if ever. The Damascus area was brought into the urban growth boundary in 2002, but a lack of infrastructure and a completely dysfunctional political environment have prevented even the most basic steps toward new development. Right now, residents are fighting to get their property de-annexed from Damascus because they are so disillusioned with their city.

As Metro looks toward its 2015 boundary decision, it must confront the failure of Damascus along with the public’s desire to have real housing choices. We acknowledge that the public’s preferences may change over time, and that a larger share of the population, particularly newcomers, might prefer condo or apartment living.

One theory is that younger people will be more satisfied with multifamily housing than their parents would have been, but nothing in the Metro survey gives any support to that belief. A majority of young people in the survey said they want a detached house.

We also recognize that people can hold conflicting views — on the one hand wanting to protect farm and forest land, while at the same time desiring a home with a yard in the suburbs.

Nonetheless, if the Metro council’s charge is to represent its constituents, it must take into account their housing preferences, or it will place at risk the public’s long-standing support for regional planning and conscientious land use.

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