Breaking Down the Numbers Behind Portland’s Growing Population
Portland is growing, and growing very rapidly at that. But getting your head wrapped around the who, what, and why of our current population expansion can be very challenging. According to local government agencies we are growing more rapidly than ever before. According to some national news outlets we’re the fastest growing state, and for a multitude of good reasons (duh).
Without a firm grounding in the history of the Rose City and a willingness to open-mindedly engage with the actual data around this population explosion, it can be easy to take a vague understanding of our current situation and come to wildly inaccurate conclusions about what’s going on, who’s benefiting from it, and who’s driving it.
In an attempt to better understand the moving to Portland trend and when and how it may peter out eventually, let’s look at the numbers, the historical record, and potential future drivers for emigration to Portland.
The “Portlandia Effect”
“It’s all Carrie Brownstein’s fault.” You may actually hear this off-repeated sentiment (or it’s partner “It’s all ____’s fault) if you hang around a Portland brew pub or coffee shop frequented by “natives” long enough. But, blaming Brownstein (or any other D-list celebrity who’s either settled here, was born here, or has featured the city in their work) is misguided. In the 1980’s and 1990’s Portland was a popular place for some young people to move to (despite the struggling local economy) and Gus Van Sant wasn’t to blame for setting Drug Store Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho in the city.
Formerly Known as the “Grunge Effect”
Portland has long been the least expensive of the major West Coast cities, as Chuck Palahniuk reports in his Fugitives and Refugees guide to the area, Katherine Dunn (author of Geek Love, etc.) attributed this to the ongoing trend of people too weird to stay in their hometowns in the Midwest and rural West needing someplace to go, and having little money, settling on Portland. Regardless of the reason, Portland has been attracting a certain type of outsider for decades longer than our current population boom or Portlandia have been around.
Preceded by the “Lewis & Clark Expo Effect”
Indeed, this isn’t even Portland’s largest historical population explosion. In the five years following the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition, the city more than doubled in size, going from roughly 161,000 to more than 270,000 residents. And, one imagines, this happened without pre-existing housing development waiting for them to arrive.
The Emergence of Portland’s Creative Class
What our current population explosion can be attributed to is the emergence of a “creative class” in Portland. Our city is fantastically good, and internationally famous for, supporting our local maker culture. And, whether this phenomenon owes its roots to the craft beer industry, Nike’s skill at outsourcing a major chunk of it’s creative work, or Wieden + Kennedy’s ability to make funny ads, young wannabe creative’s have been flocking to the city for the better part of the last three decades.
The question remains, however, whether or not—given the current rental shortage in the city and the comparatively dismal rates being offered to an overwhelmingly freelance workforce—the attraction of creative workers is sustainable. The buildings are going up fast, but will market rates come down? This ongoing issue has even played a part (for better or worse) in local elections.
The Past, Present, and Future of Portland Demographics
Finally, the numbers (compiled from the sources listed in the introduction):
As of last year, seventy percent of people moving to the state are landing in Portland. Portland rents are the twelfth highest in the nation and the average cost of a home in the city is over $400,000. But, when compared to median income, Portland’s rents shoot to the top of the list.
Half of those coming to Portland over the last decade have come from within the state or the larger geographic region. As a state, Oregon topped the nation in moves to the state by percentage of existing population—effectively exaggerating the effect, as states with larger population bases (such as California and Texas) are drawing far more people.
Job growth in the tech sector and within the creative disciplines continues to be a major driver of emigration to the area, of that all sources seem certain, though analyzing that data is well beyond a post of this size. Suffice it to say that Portland is growing rapidly and that may either continue or plateau at some point in the near or distant future (depending on whom you listen to).