Building Cities for the People Who Will Live Here, Rather Than Who Live Here Now
Amidst the debates about how our community should look there is a missing question: Who will be living here in the future? Its normal to assume that future households will be pretty much the same as today’s, yet if we look back just a few decades, most houses in Portland had many more people living in them. Over half had children in the home in the 1960s and many also had grandparents or aunts and uncles under the same roof. Today, over a quarter of households consist of one person and only one in five has school age children. What about the future?
Arthur C. Nelson, a demographer with the University of Utah and author of 30 books on metropolitan development, spoke at a recent Illahee lecture. He shared some amazing trends in household size, makeup and market demand. The numbers that I quote below compare household makeup in 2010 and 2030 for all of Multnomah County. (Somewhat number heavy, his Portland metro numbers can be seen here.)
A few examples: Over half the growth of households in the next 15 or so years will be people living by themselves, already 33% today. 78% of new households formed will be people over 65, not young people. As the Boomers age and lose their partners, they will mostly live out their lives alone. Only one in four households have children in school today and this will be the same in 2030. And most of those families will be people of color living east of 82nd.
So, what does this mean for our neighborhoods? More and more of the large houses built for the families of 50 to 100 years ago will have one or two people living in them. School numbers will drop. Transit demand will go up as older people reduce their driving. House prices could even fall as fewer people want or can afford big houses.
Of course, the demand for convenient, interesting and vibrant urban living is still high. But the housing needs of tomorrow’s Americans and Portlanders are going to be quite different than today. Homeownership is declining nationwide. More people will be renting; according to Nelson’s work, homeownership in Multnomah County is just about 55%. This will fall in the next 16 years with three-quarters of new residents being renters.
City policies have encouraged the building of multi-unit housing along the streets where we spend millions every year to provide convenient transit service. Streets like Belmont, Hawthorne and Division. Just like the first streetcar-oriented developments of the 1910s – 1930s, new apartment and condo projects are meeting the emerging need of the next generation of Portlanders. Although almost 70% of Portland is zoned for single-family housing, there is a lot of angst and heat around these changes and misinformation about how they might impact single family housing. As these pictures show, multi-unit housing without off-street car parking has been here since the “Craftsman era” because it meets the legitimate housing needs of a significant portion of our population.
Demonizing this kind of development using terms like “greed,” “speculators,” and “out of character” ignores the reality of a changing city and our changing needs. This kind of development is as smart today as it was one hundred years ago—providing more housing choice, increased retail locations (and more customers for those places we love), and more efficiently used transit. Portland has always been a dynamic, changing place. As we grow, and we will, we need to be smart about how to grow so that we become a more inclusive, sustainable and equitable community.