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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The backbone of a healthy economy? Families

And according to the Wall Street, the trend-obsessed Rose City is missing the boat:

There is a basic truth about the geography of young, educated people. They may first migrate to cities like New York, Los Angeles, Boston or San Francisco. But they tend to flee when they enter their child-rearing years. Family-friendly metropolitan regions have seen the biggest net gains of professionals, largely because they not only attract workers, but they also retain them through their 30s and 40s.

Advocates of the brew-latté-and-they-will-come approach often point to greater Portland, Ore., which has experienced consistent net gains of educated workers, including families. Yet most of that migration--as well as at least three quarters of the region's population and job growth--has been not to the increasingly childless city, but to the suburban periphery. This pattern holds true in virtually every major urban region.

The whole thing is here.

Comments (39)


All according to plan.
Right Metro?

As a former kid, I think suburbs are a better place to grow up than an urban setting anyway. However, the kind of independent play that took place when I was a kid may be illegal now.

I'm wondering if Portland city's economy is not about to go flat. It's not only the young, cool and unemployed who have moved here in recent years, but also Californian retirees carrying big bucks after having sold their houses during California's housing boom of two years back. Now that boom is a bust big time. Ergo the imported buck flow for the city may be going south in a hurry. What's worse is without this money flow, the city's going to become even more desperate in taxing its citizens to pay for all the fiefdom-like additions its made over the last five years. Hope this hunch is wrong, or exaggerated.

The backbone of a healthy economy? Families

And you can't have a family without what? CHILDREN! (And, some would say, one biological man and one biological woman with that most sanctified of all documents, the state-issued and God-approved marriage license.)

Where am I going with all this?

Just "do it", within city limits, for the children!

Maybe Mayor Sam Adams and his Partner can have a few kids a right this ship.

So what should Portland do differently? I live in Portland with two young kids. I love it. There are three incredible parks within walking distance of my house, and we routinely do the park circuit (Laurelhurst, Mt. Tabor, Washington Park) for variety. Many of the public schools (particularly elementary schools) are exceptional, and private schools abound if that's your thing. There's a lot less traffic living in the city than if you're fighting the commuters on I-5, I-217, and I-205.

The only downside that I see is housing, which is more expensive than Beaverton, Gresham, or Hillsboro. But isn't that always going to be the case? Even if we lifted the UGB completely, housing would still cost more the closer you get to downtown than it would in the 'burbs. I'm not sure that doing so would bring any more families into the city limits.

A lot of cities covet the childless family and even more the singles. They live in expensive houses/condos (property taxes) and spend lots on goods and services (consumption taxes) and they have lots of time to work hard (income taxes).

All this and they use less govt. services like schools, family court, parks, etc.

I'm not so sure that we want hipsters/PBR drinkers having kids in Portland though...it's a scary thought.

Miles. Wow, my wheelhouse.

1) Don't prioritize young creative class over all other classes. We've spent 100's millions in urban renewal funds encouraging the creation of relatively expensive and family unfriendly housing located in the urban core, while the periphery, where most families are located, has been virtually ignored.

2) Focus on good wage jobs, even if it means sacrificing a bit of our green image. I have not yet seen a political leader in Portland publicly wrestle with the tension between creating the kinds of jobs that allow a breadwinner to support a family, but may be a bit less "green" than we'd ideally like. Our wages lag and our unemployment is stubbornly higher than our competitor cities (SLC, SFran, Seattle, Austin, Raleigh). A single person may be able to make it on a 15 buck / hour job by sharing a house with four others, but a family cannot.

3) Reexamine our urban growth policies. Those of us willing to live in an urban area don't need 3000+ sq ft. But expecting someone to raise a family in 1200 sq ft is just as naive. Perhaps we need to relax a bit the UGB to encourage the development of family friendly housing. And yes, even
in Portland, that means freestanding house with a decent yard and 2000 sq ft.

4) Reexamine our retail. We push away evil big box retailers and celebrate the small tavern, bookstore, coffee shop. But given stagnating wages and the increasing expense of living in this town, some of us simply can't shop all the time at New Seasons and Whole Foods. Not when we consume 2 gallons of milk and 6 boxes of cereal a week.

5) Transportation. Mass transit, bike lanes, etc. These are all wonderful things, but for families, the bulk of transportation will continue to be a car. So while we dedicate money to mass transit, let's make sure it's still possible to get around on our streets. I've written this before: we put more miles on our car here than we did in Durham, NC, because there is no transportation to the high school and the stores are all located in the periphery.

6) Schools, schools, schools. No middle school art, sports, or music. High school classes of 40+ students. PE class has 140 students.

A lot of cities covet the childless family and even more the singles.

Yeah, but read the article. It's a mistake.

Miles is right about the quality of Portland's single family neighborhoods surrounding the downtown fiefdom. What I worry about is that the excessive build-up and build out of the downtown fiefdom is going to make it unaffordable for me and my family to continue living in the city. Our property taxes just went up over 10% this month from last year, our sewer/water rates have been escalating significantly faster than inflation or wage increases for decades. The city looks to be desperate for even higher taxes and fees, and for what? To build things not described by Miles, or asked for by most of the city's residents. Like contributing funds to build a convention hotel, internet services already provided by other private enterprises, windmills, an over-priced tram, etc. What's more when the city contracts for work it does it at top dollar elevating its debt levels and future tax burdens of its citizens.

I guess I would advocate putting a cap on Portland's aggregate debt levels, and making it tougher for the city's commissioners to raise taxes and fees.

Not that the thesis of the article isn't correct, but I think the author is being a little disingenuous by using "Cincinnati, Baltimore, Cleveland, Newark, Detroit and Memphis" as the standard for cities being hip and cool. Most cities - regardless of what type of people they try to attract - will look good in comparison to those cities.

I think if the author is going to compare the best, most successful "attract families" cities, they should be compared to the best, most successful "attract 20 somethings" cities.

Portland has it kind of right. Our city culture and amenities attracts young hip twentysomethings who bring a lot of intellectual and entrepreneurial energy to the area.

Only thing, they grow up. They stop drinking PBR and start drinking decent wine. They meet other hip, cool people and sooner or later settle down, married or in a committed partnership. They start a business. And they have kids. That's when the whole dynamic changes.

There are wonderful places in Portland to raise children--Irvington, Buckman, Sellwood, Concordia, Rose City--practicallly any neighborhood in the bungalow belt. But damn few couples can afford to buy a house in these neighborhoods anymore. Even North Portland has inflated to well beyond what most people can afford.

So how about some somewhat subsidized family housing within the city limits? We have all the condos and singles apartments we need for awhile. If space is a premium, I suggest Portland consider doing a variation of this:



Our city culture and amenities attracts young hip twentysomethings who bring a lot of intellectual and entrepreneurial energy to the area.

That's the other thing I wonder about--you constantly hear that we're attracting an entrepreneur class, but if this is true, why is our job and income growth remain stubbornly low and our unemployment remain stubbornly high?

I think things are improving--the head in the sand attitude of the past about entrepreneurship (oh, it really isn't so bad, those regional and national publications just all have it wrong), is changing, and there is some effort to lower business license fees, taxes, etc.

But I still don't get a sense that young people come to Portland to make money and build a business--those folks move to San Francisco or Seattle.

They come here because it's hip and crunchy and laid back, and if that means you are slinging lattes and sharing a house with five other folks, so be it.

Thanks for the thoughts, Paul. Some responses:

1. . . . the periphery, where most families are located, has been virtually ignored.

Leaving aside the debate over the Pearl and SOWA, doesn't the rejuvenation of neighborhood "centers" like Alberta, Mississippi, Hawthorne, Belmont, and Multnomah indicate that something positive is happening on the periphery as well? I feel like I'm constantly stumbling upon new areas that used to be run down.

3) Reexamine our urban growth policies. . . Perhaps we need to relax a bit the UGB to encourage the development of family friendly housing.

But how does relaxing the UGB bring families into the city? If the UGB drives up prices, getting rid of it would make everyone's home worth less, but housing closer to the urban core would still be more expensive. Intsead of paying $350,000 in Portland versus $275,000 in Beaverton, we'd be paying $300,000 in Portland versus $225,000 in Beaverton. You might capture a few families in that margin, but the decision will still be the same -- pay more to live in Portland, or less to live outside. Families are going to migrate to the cheaper housing.

5) Transportation. . . .While we dedicate money to mass transit, let's make sure it's still possible to get around on our streets.

Are you talking just paving/maintenance, or something else? I find driving within Portland limits to be very easy, even at rush hour. There are localized delays but surface streets move smoothly. The bulk of our traffic problems are found on the freeways and highways. One major advantage of living close-in is that I can avoid the traffic altogether. (And I commute downtown everyday, driving two days a week and busing three.)

6) Schools, schools, schools. No middle school art, sports, or music. High school classes of 40+ students. PE class has 140 students.

Totally agree, although the solutions are not clear to me. But I would argue that the reputation of PPS is far worse than the reality. When you actually visit many of our schools and look at the test scores and success of the students, they rival any private or suburban public school in the region. That's not true in all neighborhoods, but it is true in a lot of them. (And if you want to talk about overcrowding, try Beaverton schools!).

I don't disagree with the thesis that we should try to attract more families. But I get a little stuck on what that would look like in practice.

I'll get to the article later, but having lived in Boston I will point out that one of the problems is that about half, or maybe more of the property in the city is exempt from property taxes which means the remainder of the citizens pick up the cost for government services a chunk of which is used by those tax exempt property owners. As a result many people who can afford to move out leaving the poor and those rich enough to afford the taxes and who don't mind.


Having worked with marketing research stats for many years - I can see where they're going with this - but it's also pretty easy to manipulate the data to have it say what you want to hear.

The thing is the Portland MSA is growing as a whole - sure, a larger percentage of the families are going to the suburbs, but the city itself is also experiencing growth and that does include families. The article suggests that if all (or a majority of since of course there is never an 'all') the families move out, then a negative situation occurs, but there are obviously still plenty of families here. And plenty that move here from the suburbs. They like it because it's NOT like the suburbs. Why would we want to make changes so that it is more suburban like? Portland is almost ridiculously family friendly actually.

the city itself is also experiencing growth and that does include families.

City population is growing at about 1% per year, and those are the cooked numbers from the "smart growth" cheerleaders at Portland State. I doubt that much of the net gain is from families moving in. And school enrollments are way down.

Portland is almost ridiculously family friendly actually

If you're rich. Otherwise, not so much.

The problem with the entrepreneurial drive of the people drawn to Portland is that they start service businesses, not heavy industrial type business. As reported in a Portland Tribune special report and available in the Portland Business Alliance August 2006 newsletter:

"One of the areas that our membership has continually focused on is the issue of the local business income tax (BIT) and the business license fee (BLF).These taxes are hardest on small businesses, those with 50 or fewer employees. Let's face it, Portland is a small business town. Currently, there are more than 44,000 small businesses operating here, supporting our economy by providing services, tax revenue and more than 254,000 jobs. Small businesses represent about 95 percent of the companies in business today in Portland."

"Those small business (like creative services firms) which tend to have higher profit margins and thus have higher taxable net revenues than manufacturing and retail establishments, for instance, are hit particularly hard and tend to bear the highest city and county business income tax burden. Business income taxes per employee in these firms are substantially higher than for other types of businesses and are higher than larger firms. We need to level the playing field so that we encourage small business growth, not discourage it."

As long as the city makes it harder for the very type of small businesses they desire to survive, they will constantly be struggling to create good jobs.

I'm really getting tired of hearing CRAP about the so-called "creative class". As owner of a small media business for the past 19 years, I've lost count of the clueless and mostly penniless kids coming to me looking for work. If these hundreds of kids are the people Portland is drawing, I consider this "creative class" stuff pure nonsense.

Just look at our neighbors to the north. Portland consistently gets b**ch-slapped by Seattle in almost every economic indicator. Hell, I bet Tacoma has generated more new businesses than P-town.

It's obvious our "smart growth" and "progressive" policies have caused Portland to stagnate economically.

"according to the Wall Street"

No, according to Joel Kotkin, a guest columnist for WSJ. Kotkin is as reliable a voice against today' best urban development policies as is Randal O'Toole. He has shown that families move to places that produce jobs, not that families are the backbone of a healthy economy. If anyone thinks that Portland should be more like the model cities he cites (houston, charlotte, dallas, raleigh-durham...) please relocate to one of those places...

Thanks for that constructive and uplifting comment. It utterly devastates the blog post and the article, which I now see obviously have no merit. Go by streetcar!

the article and blog post will be devastated by time and reality, not my six line comment. unfortunately, those of us working to revitalize cities won't have time (or interest, frankly) to track down all the Kotkin's and Bog's of the world to gloat, as you surely would were we to fail.

those of us working to revitalize cities

Portland was already a very alive, healthy and vibrant city before Neil Goldschmidt and Vera Katz turned it over to crooks like Dike Dame. It didn't, and doesn't, need "revitalization" from you planning bureaucrats, who are wrecking it, aesthetically and especially financially.

Jack, I lived in NE when you could hear gunshots several times a week on Fremont. I don't know if that's what you mean by "alive," but this city is better off today than it has been my whole life living here, and thankfully it's going to keep moving in that direction.

Such a strong argument: PLUS this:

those of us working to revitalize cities won't have time (or interest, frankly) to track down all the Kotkin's and Bog's of the world to gloat, as you surely would were we to fail.

The Few

The Proud

The Planners

Well, I've lived all over this town: inner Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, Southwest. And what I've seen is not improvement. Sorry, KSK, it just isn't.

I bought a place over on SW Vermont a number of years ago. It was quiet, it was nice, it was within walking distance to the local elementary school.

Then, the "planners" descended. Because I had a creek running through my back yard, they slapped an "environmental overlay on my land. That's a treat. You haven't lived until you've got Portland telling you that you have to fork over $1200 and submit plans so that they can decide whether or not to allow you to build a replacement for your back deck.

At the same time, the "planners" permitted what they call "infill". This meant that rather than the occasional car driving by, they started zipping by (at well over speed limits) every few seconds.

"Voom! Voom! Voom!"

Yeah, that's some real quality of life.

It's why we sold the place and moved further out. Unfortunately, we're still in the Portland city limits. I plan to change that in about two years. They won't let me vote on important stuff like the Tram, but I still have the option of voting with my feet. And this family is going to get the hell out from under "big pipe", "streetcars", subsidized condos, and "infill". Glad you like it, and are willing to pay for it. I don't, and I'm not.

Thanks for moving further out, Max. Hopefully the folks who bought your house ride bikes or transit so there's less "Voom Voom!"

Seriously though, your complaints about Portland are not unique to this city. There isn't a successful metro area in America that isn't getting more dense. Heck, where you live, I would guess the extra cars are more from new single family homes in the burbs than "infill."

As for the environmental stuff, such is the day in which we live. if you think you'd have an easier time building your deck in Tigard or Charlotte, you're sadly mistaken..

Finally, upon 2nd reading, I like how Kotkin focuses on metro area growth for the family claim, and then on the burbs alone for Portland. perhaps an apples to apples is in order....

Oh, we'll leave that thoughtful, unbiased analysis to those of you whose livelihoods depend upon our worshipful adherence to the tenets of your religion.

Thanks for being so condescending.

All the best,


"The backbone of a healthy economy? Families"

I think if you look at where most of the wealth is, it is concentrated in families. WHether that means they have two incomes, are willing to pay extra for houses with yards for kids to ply in or are running companies.

Families also lend stability. Condo housing will stay in demand as long as an area is cool. Family housing requires the owner to invest in his house and neighborhood and to care about local schools, thus stability. The family man just cant pick up and move, so there is more motivation to make things better.

I think Sam-boys focus on single-creative types comes from building the city he wants - lots of HD condos and no cars. Something that doesn't work for most families.

there's a not so well kept secret that I discovered more than 2 decades ago....it's better and cheaper to live outside Multnomah County......and the schools are better also....shhhhh don't tell anyone......

KSK writes: ... those of us working to revitalize cities ...

It reminds me of the song on 'Free to Be … You and Me":

"Some kind of help is the kind of help that helping's all about,

And some kind of help is the kind of help--we all could do without."

I don't think it's fair to lump RDU in with Atlanta and Houston. Have you ever been there?

You cite some good examples, but I don't credit the city's development policies for the rebirth of Miss. or Alberta. Multnomah and Hawthorne have been hot for two decades, well before our fascination with the creative class.

My point, anyway, is not that these developments are bad, it's just that I have yet to hear any sort of family focussed plan coming out of city hall. *Everything* is downtown-centric.

Nor do I think you, or I, really represent what the author is writing about. Sorry to assume here, but I think we're both upper middle class white guys in expensive close in neighborhoods.

Drive east on Glisan out of Laurelhurst until you hit 92nd, and tell me what City policy had been dedicated to those folks in the past decade. This is where the core of Portland's families reside, and they face crappy schools, poorly maintained roads, and long commutes to their crummy service jobs.

On schools, I don't think your claims about PPS test scores being as good as the privates or suburban publics is accurate. You can't use Laurelhurst elementary as your standard. Use district wide figures.

My point, anyway, is not that these developments are bad, it's just that I have yet to hear any sort of family focussed plan coming out of city hall.

I agree, Paul. I'd like to see them use the bully pulpit more often to advocate for families. Hopefully Fritz, Branam, or Lewis will have some ideas during the campaign.

My point about schools wasn't that district-wide the scores are better -- they're not -- but that at a number of schools they are. The negative drum-beat against PPS, though, causes parents in "good" districts to send their kids to a private school, or move outside of Portland, just because of the PPS reputation (versus the reality of their particular school). I'm not in the Rieke district, but I know they were losing tons of kids and PPS threatened to close them down, even though they are a phenomenal elementary school by just about any measure. They got PPS to delay for a year while they started a marketing campaign, and now they are capturing a much higher rate of kids who already live in the area.

None of this takes away from the fact that we need to bring the poor performing schools up to a higher level, but it would help the entire district if at the very least we could keep the kids enrolled at those schools that are already exceptional.

There was an article in Forbes back in 2003 about what makes cities and states good for growing businesses. The list was as follows:

* Strong science and engineering Universities
* Stellar K-12 education
* Capital for experimentation
* Capital for business risk
* Low taxes and light regulation
* Love of creative mess (as opposed to central planning)
* Inclusive optimism (left wing cities tend to be pessimistic)
* Respect for risk-takers

Now seriously folks, does this sound like Portland, or for that matter, Oregon. You could argue that Oregon would get an F in just about all areas of that list. That's why our economy always struggles, we don't really want business here. I really don't think things are going to improve until we take a serious look at our business attitudes. Now repeat after me: Small businesses are not evil.

The focus on the "Young Creative Class" is just another in a series of economic development angles pushed by the professional consulting class (think "biotech). It was started by Richard Florida, and picked up locally by Joe Cortright, who has made a living off of the concept. It is an interesting theory, but with little actual statistical evidence that it works. While not uncommon for an economic development scheme, it should be open to questioning such as that put forward by Kotkin.

"Thanks for moving further out, Max. Hopefully the folks who bought your house ride bikes or transit so there's less "Voom Voom!"

Hopefully they don't have to walk too far to the bus stop, because there are no sidewalks on a good deal of SW Vermont. Oh, and hopefully they don't care too much about convenience, because the #1 only arrives every forty minutes at peak hours.

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