Two longtime opponents on land use issues are working together on a groundbreaking study on where and how people in the Portland area want to PHOTO BY JAIME VALDEZ - Metro is working on a survey to determine where people want to live in the region, including apartments like these being built in St. Johns.

The Home Builders Association of Metro Portland (HBAMP) represents companies that prefer to build single-family homes on large tracts of land. 1000 Friends of Oregon has repeatedly fought to preserve farm and forest lands from those kinds of developments.

Many of the battles have played out at Metro, the regional government that manages the urban growth boundary, which determines where growth can occur. Clashes have frequently occurred over where Metro should expand the UGB to allow new subdivisions.

Now the two organizations are working with Metro to craft a survey to help determine the kind of housing Portland-area residents want. The Housing Preference Survey will be conducted by Portland State University with assistance from DHM Research, a local polling firm.

“In the past, we’ve argued over the assumptions that have gone into Metro’s decisions. If we can make sure the assumptions are based on objective data, we should be able to reach agreements easier,” said HBAMP CEO Dave Nielsen.

Mary Kyle McCurdy, the policy director and staff attorney for 1000 Friends of Oregon, is not yet sure the results will be all that significant, however.

“We’re still asking a lot of questions [about the survey] at this point. If anything, it will just be a snapshot of what people are thinking that needs to be consider with other information, like transportation and census trends,” explained McCurdy.

Nielsen and McCurdy are both serving on the project management team for what Metro is calling the “Residential Preference Research Partnership.” Other members include representatives of local governments in the region.

When the survey is completed in March 2014, it will be the first scientific attempt by Metro to measure housing preferences since the 1990s. According to Metro employees working on the survey, no similar efforts have been attempted anywhere in the country in recent years.

Metro Deputy Director for Community Development John Williams said the survey partners are still writing the questions. They will attempt to probe preferences well beyond a simple choice between living in a city or a suburb, however.

A July 2013 draft proposal for the Residential Preference Research Partnership describes its goals as developing a better understand of “preferences for different housing, community and location characteristics” and “how factors such as income, number of household members, presence of kids, the age of the householder and lifestyle may be related to residential preferences.”

The results will incorporated into the housing calculations in the Urban Growth Report that the elected Metro Council will use to decide whether and where to expand the UGB in December 2015.

Nielsen said previous Metro housing surveys have not been detailed enough to provide usable information. For example, a question on a January 2012 online Metro survey asked whether participants would choose to live in “walkable neighborhoods that contain a range of housing and job types, smaller lots for single-family homes, and less use of automobiles.”

The question did not include any information about the price or size of the homes, the quality of the schools, amenities such as parks or the availability of transit.

The questions are being written as a new book is reviving the national debate over the future of traditional cul-de-sac living.

“The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving” by Leigh Gallagher argues that people are fleeing the suburbs for cities for many reasons, including rising transportation costs. The book has been both praised and criticized, with the liberal New York Times calling it well-documented and the conservative Wall Street Journal saying it is shallow.

In fact, it is too early to know whether the American dream of a single-family home with a large yard is dead. The housing market has only recently showed significant signs of recovering from the Great Recession. Homes are just beginning to sell again in large numbers in most metropolitan areas again, meaning many homeowners who have been “underwater” on their mortgages are only now in a position to decide whether and where to move.

Home-building is also just beginning to recover, too. Many apartment buildings are under construction in Portland, suggesting Gallagher may be right. But Nielsen noted that home construction is starting again in traditional suburban communities such as Happy Valley, indicating there is still a market for single-family homes outside urban centers.

Nielsen believes the survey could be duplicated throughout the country. He will be seeking financial support from the National Home Builders Association for it soon.

“Portland is seen as a national model for smart growth, both successful and otherwise. What we do here could have an impact around the country,” said Nielsen.

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