Portland Population Growth: Migration is Back

Portland Population Growth: Migration is Back

by Amy Vander Vliet

May 16, 2016

Late last year the Population Research Center at Portland State University released official 2015 population estimates for Oregon and its counties, which showed the Portland metro area's (Oregon portion) population growing at the fastest pace in eight years.

This past April they released more information, including ‘components of population change': how much of an area's population change is due to natural increase (births minus deaths) and how much is due to net migration. Natural increase has been remarkably steady for decades, hovering around 10,000 people annually. The more compelling story behind our population growth is migration.

In the heyday of the 1990s, net migration in the Portland metro area (Oregon portion) averaged about 20,000 people annually and accounted for roughly two-thirds of our population growth. No doubt the region's booming economy, quality of life, and low cost of living attracted many of these new residents. In the 2000s, migration slowed to an average of 10,000 people annually and accounted for half of growth. Two recessions on either end of the decade – each of which hit Portland harder than many other parts of the country – and rising housing costs were probable deterrents.

Migration slowed to a trickle in the aftermath of the Great Recession, and accounted for just one-quarter of population growth. Portland's jobs recovery was lethargic and unemployment was high. People were less willing to move without a job lined up, especially to an area as hard hit as Portland. Additionally, a study by the Federal Reserve of Boston found that the rising number of homeowners underwater in their mortgages contributed to a decrease in state-to-state migration (aka "house lock"). It might seem surprising people moved here at all. But the Rose City entices newcomers, even during tough economic times.

It didn't take long for migration to pick up. It more than doubled in 2012 and accelerated further in 2013 and 2014, reaching levels more typical of non-recessionary times. The robust job market didn't hurt – the metro area was in full growth mode by 2013, adding tens of thousands of jobs annually and outperforming most other major metro areas.

In 2015, net migration reached 20,600 people; comfortably exceeding each of the preceding four years; more than the average of the 2000s; and about the same as the typical year in the 1990s. At the same time the metro area added 35,000 jobs, outpacing all but 10 major metro areas. And even though house prices have soared, they are still lower than several other major Western metro areas, including Denver, Seattle, San Jose, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.