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It's a Renters' Crisis.

I was surprised at the lack of demographics available on renters in Portland. It may be that I didn't know where to look or was asking the wrong people. Meanwhile, the other half of the equation, housing units, was also reported as missing.

Recently, the Oregonian wrote an editorial on the total lack of information on housing: "We know we don't have enough housing, but we also don't know exactly how much we have." And they thought a proposed database of buildings -an inventory - is a good idea. Me too. One I might add made better if we understand it is to be integrated with census data and other demographic-based databases so we know where the units and people are by neighborhood. The Oregonian reported the inventory as containing (to start) "basic information - units and addresses." I presume it would give the type of information that allows us to compare Portland's inventory with national numbers like these:

It's not only housing we don't know much about, but renters and that makes understanding the housing situation difficult. For example, getting landlords to address and adopt best practices, as the City's Rental Services Commission is doing, rests on a one size fits all assumption and tends to address the most problematic of renters when it comes to security deposits and rental requirements. If the local numbers are similar it also means that not addressing single-family rentals when making rental rules would be to ignore a significant number of renters, a situation the City Council created then remedied in favor of renters.

There is, however, some information on units and renters by neighborhood in the census data sheets on the ONI website. Prepared by PSU folks, the Community GIS coordinator at the Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies says it's information due for a revision in late summer. I think it still gives a snapshot that can contribute to the conversations we are already having on what is a renters crisis around housing - affordability and availability.

First, I'm coming from a marketing background as opposed to a housing or redevelopment one, and coupled with being a lifelong renter my focus is on renters, users in techspeak. It is a consumer relationship as well as a citizen one as renters constitute a large number of constituents and government plays a major role in housing.

As consumers and citizens, a lack of basic information about the product,

the producers of the product, and the users in a marketplace known for its volatility - real estate - is a key element of the havoc being created within our community up and down the supply chain from increases in homelessness to an increase in luxury apartments to a decrease in below market subsidized housing a.k.a. affordable housing.

Who's at the controls anyway?

From a marketing point of view we don't know where to begin to answer that question:

  • what or where the product is located, especially the "affordable" product;

  • what's in the pipeline?

  • are we easing the backlog?

  • what is the relationship of the pipeline to the needs of buyers in terms of pricing and configuration - single vs. family, income levels, race, gender, age.

  • who are the buyers, except, as a rule, what we know based on income data, they are most likely to be living on fixed-income, or unable to work, or work in low paying jobs, with many a step away from being homeless. All major racial and ethnic groups were more likely to rent in 2016 than a decade earlier; way too many people are priced out of the market completely (homeless); and those under 35 are renting, not buying homes until much, much later, if at all.

Using 2010 Census Data parsed by neighborhood I did come up with some numbers. There are nearly 250,000 renters in Portland and since 2010 there has been a growth in rental units. I think it's a fairly reliable number so I'm going to share more information from these reports.

This is information I learned from what is out there on the ONI website.

Over 40% of Portlanders are renters and renter occupied units ring in at 43%.

Maybe you are from Memphis, Detroit or Denver and think there are tons of apartments here compared to where you came from. And you are correct.

Apartments as percent of All Housing for San Francisco is 37%, for Seattle 34% and in cities in similar size to Portland’s population, Memphis at 17%, Detroit @ 12%, and Denver at 30%. Source.

And, not surprisingly the bigger the neighborhood, the more renters. Half of the 90+ neighborhoods account for 80% of the renters. This would be especially interesting to anyone who thinks the a City Council ought to be elected by district or for renters who may want to run for other elected offices at the State and City levels.

The top twenty-five neighborhoods by renter population account for over half of the renters and units.

Just as interesting is the percent of renters to the population of the neighborhood (density). Now #1 is Goosehollow displacing PowellHurst-Gilbert that falls to 25th. My neighborhood, Old Town Chinatown jumps up to #15, the Pearl to #12 and Downtown remains #9.

Portland has also experienced "a national growth spurt of high-income wage earners, mostly couples." These folks accounted for nearly half (47 percent) of the growth in renters between 2013 and 2016 according the Pew Report entitled, as mentioned above, "More U.S. households are renting than at any point in 50 years."

Despite this flood of higher-income households, the typical renter in 2015 earned only about $37,900 or half of a typical HOMEOWNER household. This might explain why the stereotype of renters in Portland, where home ownership, while in decline, reigns supreme as the preferred lifestyle, is part of the class and race discrimination permeating public conversations and policies.

This under-representation of renters in decision-making activities, starting at the neighborhood level and beyond, is shrouded in a strong sense of noblesse-oblige. Too many of us are poor, workers (college graduates are the least likely group to be renters), and 'hard to find' people of color and women. Finally, even when it comes to housing/land use/design, renters don't have the necessary technical qualifications unlike the majority of home and business owners. Really. Are not these qualifications to be found among the many employees of the City and County?

I don't like being so harsh about this, but renters represent the very people important to our city's future. Renters bring the value of diversity and the experience of living in a neighborhood to achieving healthy connected neighborhoods.

  • Young adults – those younger than 35 – continue to be the most likely of all age groups to rent.

  • Black and hispanic households continue to be about twice as likely as white households to rent their homes.

Renters are locked out of the system and treated in many cases like second class citizens.

Many of the top 25 rental neighborhoods as percent of population fall below the median income. Indeed most of them.

A more complete look at Median Household Income rankings is here. On this chart, the Pearl is in the middle at $59.8. Downtown is second last at $32.9 and Old Town Chinatown comes in last at $26.3 in this ranking of 61 neighborhoods.

In short, renting is a unifying attribute of low income folks, male and female, who come in all colors, shapes and sizes. They are the most likely to spend more than 30% of their income on rent (cost burdened), be realistically stressed about landing up homeless, and are under-represented at every level of City and State governance.

Things are changing. There is an awakening of sorts among renters.

Helping renters exercise their citizen muscle has begun with groups such as Portland Tenants United. Some candidates running for office at the City and State levels are starting to pay more attention to appealing to renters as a voting block. Elected officials are becoming sensitized as well by creating rules for containing, but not eliminating yet, the onerous practice of throwing renters out for no cause and by forming an industry-centric Commission to develop best practices within the industry.

The consumer muscle, which Annie Leonard has pointed out is over-developed in most consumer areas, needs development when it comes to rental housing. To this end we can look for help to the Web and the success of consumer rating sites such as Yelp for entertainment, Glassdoor for employees, and ratemyprofessor for students. The Web is also efficient at streamlining processes such as One App is starting to do for the application/qualifying process.

In this regard, I have put some time in thinking about such a platform for renters, initially focusing on those in affordable housing. Combined with listings it can help answer not

Capitol Hill EcoDistrict Artwork

only where they are, but what is it like to live in one and do the elevators work most

of the time. It will put some teeth in traditional property listings.

My initial thoughts on such a platform are here at

Comments and suggestions appreciated.

Ruth Ann Barrett


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