A Day in the Life: PDX

The Last Real Neighborhood: A Look at Portland in a Crossroads between Working Class & Gentrification through Observations in Food
The Last Real Neighborhood: A Look at Portland in a Crossroads between Working Class & Gentrification through Observations in Food

Writing prompts are a godsend when one doesn’t want to divulge too much about their day-to-day, yet exercise the thought connections – words, texts, paragraphs, brain synopses, how it all flows together. I’ve used Plinky previously, but their topics don’t always resonate. So, happily, I checked out WordPress’s Daily Post, Writing Prompt, and yesterday, this is what I discover.

Every city and town contains people of different classes: rich, poor, and somewhere in between. What’s it like where you live? If it’s difficult for you to discern and describe the different types of classes in your locale, describe what it was like where you grew up — was it swimming pools and movie stars, industrial and working class, somewhere in between or something completely different (See more here.)

Race Comparision, 2000 to 2010, where Portland remained predominantly white.
Race comparison, 2000 to 2010, where Portland remained predominantly white.

I followed a boy here, but he was just the catalyst. I had always dreamed about living in the Pacific Northwest. After watching Singles, I had this idea of perpetual fall – my favorite season – and if Michigan wasn’t doing it for me, then where else could I go? This boy afforded me the reason to move – we were in love. Well, the relationship didn’t last, but my love affair with Portland has.

I moved here in 2003. I was told I didn’t need a car because the bus service was amazing. I heard stories of a hippies paradise, and what I found was that I no longer had to argue about recycling. There were interesting things on every corner – Portlandia adorned a building that looks like a present, it rained blossoms in the springtime, there was art in the parks like Washington DC, and people even painted the streets to slow down traffic. The bus came, frequently, so I didn’t even own a car for the first 3 years I was here – relying on my feet, my seat (on a bike), the bus, or ZipCar (then FlexCar) to get me where I needed to go. I was in my twenties, and it was a dream. The independence I felt was triumphant, as I continued to go to school and work a full-time job, then about a mile from each place.

When I moved to Portland, I lived in three neighborhoods over the course of three years. I started in southeast, moved across the river to southwest (Corbett / Lair Hill), and finally have made North Portland my home, with my husband, who I met here.

In 2008, I started looking at my neighborhood in more depth. We had lived in Arbor Lodge since 2005, and in that short time, we saw many changes. The Yellow Line Max finished and started running, local favorite health store (New Seasons Markets) opened a store, and the development soured. The boy who brought me here liked to repeat that wherever MAX goes stores turn to gold. And the amount of development that continues to blossom is astonishing.

In 2008, when I was examining the changes in the neighborhood, the rose-colored glasses came off. No longer was I a 20-something who only cared about an organic garden and getting along with my housemates. Now, I was married with a baby. Now, our income reduced because of situations beyond our control. Now, we had to look at things in a  leaner light. And, we were surprised. In 2008, we made less than half of the median family income for the area, and we qualified for many services offered in the social safety net. Our housing related costs were 70% of our family budget, well over the HUD recommended for a stable family. But, what could we do? We had a house with a garage and a yard. If we moved we’d be getting a slightly less expensive apartment. So, we stayed, and we got by, and things got better. We stayed in our walkable neighborhood, where we would frequent King Burrito and Walgreens. We stayed in our neighborhood where I could still take the 35 to work, and as our income increased, we started to get more interested in buying a house.

The shock we found. We assessed our income and figured we could afford a $150,000 in 2009. So, began our real estate search. 3 agents later and a month of flea bites to torture my sensitive legs, we decided that buying a house wasn’t in the cards for us. Clearly, we are being priced out of the market since staying on budget was so important to us. The only thing we could afford wouldn’t qualify for a loan!

A look at housing values in 1999 and 2012.
A look at housing values in 1999 and 2012.

We waited, and the market changed. Circumstances adjusted so that in 2012, we started our search again. We found a compatible agent who walked us through house after house after house, over the course of about 10 months. We cringed. We looked beyond our price range. And we bemoaned the low inventory. Finally, all the puzzle pieces fell into place, and we found a modest home with sturdy bones, without fleas, that was in our price range. We haggled, we negotiated, we inspected, and we waited. And, on the day before Thanksgiving, we closed on what is now our first house. I know we got a good value for our home, based on the market, the walkability, the neighborhood, and the type.

What I don’t get is why collectively, we let it all get out of hand. We have known we live on a fine line between making it and not making it. We try to plan and budget to make sure we stay on the “make it” side of the line, but like many American families, we’re only a few paychecks away from needing to go back to that social safety net if something bad were to happen. In fact, Kaiser Health News released a report documenting how close we are to being eligible for premium benefits compared to the federal property rate. And, I had thought that we’d been moving forward over the last few years! Now, it seems we’re taking a few steps backwards.

The cumulative rate of inflation from 1999 to 2012 is just over 37%, yet housing costs increased between 45% and 130%.
The cumulative rate of inflation from 1999 to 2012 is just over 37%, yet housing costs increased between 45% and 165%.

The pundits have talked, since Mitt ran for president, about the growing divide between haves and have nots, and it seems that Portland is one of those key examples of how that divide is working. After considering this writing prompt, I’ve been digging through the census data and collecting some things that have been percolating in my brain for the last few months. And, this is what I found out.

Oh! How Portland has changed over the years! In my first observation, I considered that I moved here in 2003, into the home of a friend who bought her house the year before with her husband. They live in a modest neighborhood, that in the 70s earned the nickname “Felony Flats”. Their modest, 1,200 square foot, 3 bedroom home, with a tiny backyard, and intriguing shared garage increased in value by 35% over the last 10 years. A 35% increase in value seems outrageous to me. The US Inflation Calculator figures that there is a 26% cumulative rise in inflation from 2003 to 2014. So, my friends’ home increased in value 10% over the rise in inflation. Our new home increased 82% from the value of the home in 2003 and the value of the home in 2014 – over 50% higher than the cumulative rise in inflation!

Thinking about housing prices, made me consider income and who holds the wealth in the city. I was able to find a comparison between 1999 and 2012. In 1999, it looks like the wealth was distributed in a fair bell curve, with a bulk of the city’s wealth being held in the middle. In looking at the 2012 data, though, it looks like it’s beginning to distribute up, as if we’re on the beginning of a J curve, giving the haves more resources than the have nots.

1999 income distribution compared to 2012.
1999 income distribution compared to 2012.

That is Portland in a nutshell. You have neighborhoods that appear primarily working class, but the desirability factor continues to price existing residents out. The incomes are distributing away from the lower and middle class towards the upper class. Housing affordability matches the higher incomes. Houses are being torn down and developed into McMansions. The sustainability factor of Portland is decreasing because all the kitschy amenities that make this place great are disappearing.

So, a day in the life of PDX is interesting, because it is in the midst of this change – and I, for one, am not sure where the change will lie when it’s all over.

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