By Steve Strode, originally published in PQ Monthly, November, 2013
It’s the question always asked at a cocktail party, when one learns there’s a realtor in their midst. People are used to hearing daily news on the macro-level—national foreclosure rates, price appreciation, inventory shortages. But what they really want to know is: How are things in their neighborhood? So now my standard response is, “Where do you live?” While that’s sometimes interpreted as a pick up line, it’s a completely necessary question.
Nothing is more local than real estate. Chiefly, it’s how we build community—one block at a time. Coming out of the recession, the majority of foreclosures were confined to a handful of states. But we still felt collectively paralyzed—that it was doom and gloom everywhere. And then we noticed. Places like Portland were starting to do okay; then later, doing well.
As I’m writing this article, I’m sitting in a hotel lobby in San Francisco, about to attend a Symposium on Sustainable Development. The program reads, “Sustainable development begins from the ground up. The first step is to change the way we think.” And I smile, knowing that what we live and breathe in Portland is not quirky or weird. It’s the future, but we’ve been experiencing it for years.
The National Association of Realtors just published survey results entitled, “Neighborhood Preferences are Changing,” which provides further support that Portland is getting it right—in the big picture. Sixty percent of respondents want a mix of housing, shops and services that are walkable. The majority responded they would give up a larger yard or would buy a smaller home if they could have a shorter commute. Seventy-eight percent said the neighborhood is more important than the house size. Having access to different types of transportation modes also rank very highly.
And what we’re seeing are buyers and renters willing to walk the talk. In major cities everywhere, Millennials are leading the charge. They are trading the car-dependent suburban culture they grew up in, exchanging them for an urban lifestyle, choosing micro-apartments of 400 square feet or less. The apartment is a place to sleep; the neighborhood and its amenities have become the living room.
These trends are playing out daily with buyers and colleagues I know. Professionally-marketed homes in close-in Portland are getting offers soon after hitting the market—often multiple ones. We’re seeing hot building trends in Portland, too. For example, every vacant lot along Southeast Division appears to be an apartment construction zone. A few builders are selling their formulaic “McInfill” homes on every available lot (I’m trying to coin that term as an urban version of “McMansion”—you read it here first). We all have friends desperately seeking an apartment, or know first-time buyers competing for homes.
All is not perfect. Re-development and new urban development is often viewed as a zero-sum game. The LGBT community is often associated with gentrification. We’ve moved into areas that have been maligned by the majority, renovated homes, and created vibrant neighborhoods. But these same neighborhoods have also been home to other groups for generations—and they often reach a tipping point where it becomes too costly for long-term residents to remain.
In the nationwide public radio show “State of the Re:Union,” host Al Letson featured Portland, discussed the North Williams corridor and interviewed African-American residents who have experienced the changes. In an only-in-Portland fashion, it was the bike lane proposals that helped bring racial issues to the surface, but also brought an opportunity for dialogue. Imagine being a multi-generational black resident, getting frequent calls to sell your house. You see this as your family’s neighborhood—and while the white callers meant no harm, they are not realizing that same call has been received dozens of times previously. (Disclaimer: as a realtor I am not suggesting “black” and “white” neighborhoods, but sharing an anecdote from Letson’s program.) As affordability has waned, we see various population shifts. And unfortunately, the same things that people like best about living close-in are not yet prevalent in neighborhoods on the periphery. Children have lost their sidewalks. Commute times are longer.
Local community is built through local involvement, and as someone on that radio show quipped, “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you don’t get fed.” Engagement has to be at the neighborhood level. If surveys indicate that we want walkable neighborhoods, this cannot be tied to income. On the whole, we’re getting it right in Portland and we’re well-poised for the future. But to create a sustainable model for all, we have to create that same sense of “local” in all Portland neighborhoods.
Steve Strode is a realtor in the Portland metro area, and co-founder of rEqual – an LGBT housing and advocacy organization. Steve is also President of Portland Frontrunners. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.