Looking down I-5 at struggling Portland lately, it’s been hard not to wonder if we’re seeing a harbinger of sorts for our own city.
Our littler sister city has been careening far ahead of us in grown-up, post-pandemic urban problems. And also in how bluntly it has begun talking about how the bloom has come off the Rose City.
“Portland has switched from attracting new arrivals to repelling its current citizens,” one news outlet wrote this past week. “In Portland, many liberals are dodging stray bullets, losing catalytic converters to thieves and sidestepping tents. Then they open their tax bills.”
“Everybody hates Portland,” headlined a harsh roundup last year, which quoted a local congressman saying: “Portland is broken.”
These were not from right-wing blogs or national Fox News. The latter was from Oregon Public Broadcasting, with the congressman the city’s own liberal stalwart Rep. Earl Blumenauer. The other is a cover story this past week in the famed alternative paper there, Willamette Week, titled “They Left: Portland Is Losing Some of Its Biggest Fans.”
The story is about people who are bailing on the city. Portland has now lost population three years in a row. It’s dropped only a little over 1% total, yet that’s enough to rock perceptions because Portland has been on a roll for 30-plus years.
“Yikes ... this is a two or three alarm fire,” a state economist tweeted about the recent news that 17,000 more people had left the state of Oregon in 2022 than moved there. “If 2023 doesn’t rebound, it’s a five alarm fire for the economic outlook.”
Oregon has an income tax, so when taxpayers move away you can calculate how much income they took with them. Multnomah County, where Portland sits, saw people leaving in 2020 with a net loss of taxable income for the area of about $400 million, Willamette Week reported.
I bring all this up because of the worry Seattle could follow in Portland’s wake. Every bad trend Seattle has been struggling with is arguably worse down in Portland. Last year Portland had twice as many homicides as Seattle, and about 4,000 more car thefts (11,000 versus 7,000), in a city with 100,000 fewer residents. It also has an estimated 800 homeless encampments.
But a recent analysis of U.S. Postal Service change-of-address data suggests people may be leaving Seattle as well. While Seattle lost population in 2021, the general sense from demographers has been that our city is rebounding.
But data collected by the National Association of Realtors and released this past week shows more people moved out of Seattle in 2022 than moved in. Change of address forms aren’t a population count. (For starters they don’t measure major population factors like births.) Demographers say USPS address data can give the gist of general migration patterns.
The Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue region and the Portland-Vancouver-Beaverton area are leading the West Coast on net move-outs, the data shows. According to this analysis, San Francisco saw less migration away from the city in 2022 than either Seattle or Portland. Los Angeles may be bouncing back from its pandemic losses to start growing again.
“Most areas that experienced the largest influx of people were in Florida, Texas, and the Carolinas,” the report notes.
The underlying data for Seattle shows about 15,000 more change-of-address requests heading out than coming in. That’s likely before weighing much effect of the recent tech layoffs for the region.
(We’re officially in a tech recession, by the way, as the state Employment Security Department reported this month that the tech sector went negative on jobs for the fourth quarter of 2022 — down 4,600 jobs overall. It’s a far cry from a year ago when Amazon had 10,000 job openings just in Seattle.)
All of this is in the cautionary tale category, as I said up top. A few years of trickling or even negative growth is probably no big deal. As the Oregon economist suggested, it’s when it becomes routine that a town gets that spiraling feeling.
“I didn’t think I was ever leaving Oregon,” Willamette Week quoted one 18-year Portland resident, a chiropractor, who decamped to Naples, Florida.
In Seattle, I see our School Board is talking now about closing schools, and King County Metro about paring bus routes. It was only five years ago that a big pressure point at the schools was too many portable classrooms, while some bus lines were so jammed you at times couldn’t board them. It’s whiplash for a city that got accustomed to only one direction: up.
Nobody knows why families left the Seattle schools in droves. (Nobody asked them.) It’s the same with people now moving out of formerly superstar cities like Portland. The main driver has got to be that housing and other costs are too high. But it’d be blind not to acknowledge — as Portland now appears to be doing — that the quality of life in the city has plunged as well.
Seattle isn’t Portland. We have advantages, such as how our economy is enormous in comparison. But the similarities are as plain as the rain.
In the city elections coming up, it’d be great to hear more from the candidates about revitalization. About fixing broken things. How can a city bring people back to the schools, to downtown, to transit, to the city itself? Rather than, as Willamette Week noted, “repelling its current citizens?”
It starts with admitting there’s a problem. Portland seems ahead of us on that as well.
Danny Westneat is an opinion columnist for The Seattle Times.