Urban families run for the suburbs


The city of Portland's population grew by 21 percent during the 1990s, to 529,000 people. That's by far the highest it's ever been.

Yet the number of children in Portland schools is at its lowest level since the 1920s, when Portland's population was under 300,000. How can that be?

High housing prices and traffic congestion are driving families to the suburbs. Singles and couples with no children who can afford higher housing costs may be attracted to Portland's lively inner city. But, as city Commissioner Erik Sten has noted, 'middle-class people are moving to the suburbs for bigger houses.'

Portland has given tax breaks and other subsidies to developers to tear down single-family homes and replace them with apartments, row houses, or Ñ the most recent trend Ñ skinny houses that are only 15 feet wide. (For examples, see the Friends of Neighborhood Zoning Web site at http://fonz.us.) This has made homes with real yards so costly that families with children Ñ who want such homes Ñ must move to less-expensive suburbs.

'We're not going to win a contest with the suburbs over who has bigger garages and bigger yards,' says city Commissioner Jim Francesconi. But that's a contest Portland deliberately lost when it decided to 'densify' Gateway, Hollywood and numerous other neighborhoods.

Congestion also plays a role in pushing families out. Singles and childless couples may be willing to walk or ride public transit, but families with children demand the mobility provided by the automobile. They won't find that in Portland, which has deliberately increased congestion on streets by putting up concrete barriers, installing speed bumps and taking away lanes of traffic from drivers. Planners euphemistically call this 'traffic calming,' but the real goal is to discourage driving by adding obstacles.

The results are clear: Portland's school district lost about 2,000 students in the last year, a -4 percent drop. Meanwhile, suburban school districts in Oregon gained an average of at least 1,200 students each. The school district in Vancouver, Wash., has grown by 50 percent in the last decade and continues to grow. 'We got a bigger house for less,' says one former Oregonian who recently moved there.

Portland's push for high-density housing has attracted a population largely consisting of singles and childless couples. 'Younger couples with kids have moved out,' says Barry Edmonston, director of the Population Research Center at Portland State University.

With planners deliberately making housing unaffordable and driving intolerable, is it any wonder that Portland suffers from the highest unemployment rate of any major U.S. city? Or that Oregon has the highest unemployment rate of any state? Employers were attracted to the Portland area in the 1980s because of its affordability and livability. Now the region's unaffordability and congestion drives them away.

Planners at Metro want to extend Portland's anti-family policies to the entire region, and planners at the state Department of Land Conservation and Development want to extend them to the entire state. The planners have let their vision of a car-free population living in high-density developments overrule the real needs of Oregonians.

Auto-mobility and home ownership provide enormous benefits for Americans. Cars give us access to better jobs, lower-cost consumer goods and much else. Home ownership provides a place for families to live and grow, and helps them build their wealth.

Planners' war on the automobile and low-density housing is a war on families. A cease-fire should be declared immediately, and these policies should be reversed.