Another year, another influx of former California residents to the Portland area.
That’s one takeaway from new migration numbers reported by the U.S. Census Bureau earlier this month. They show the Portland metro area — Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties in Oregon and Clark County in Washington — saw its biggest gains from Oregon’s southern neighbor, with an average net gain of 11,247 people from California each year from 2015 to 2019.
Many leaving the metro area also didn’t go far. When Portlanders moved elsewhere, they were likely to head to other areas of Oregon and Washington. The Portland area had a net loss of 5,374 residents to other parts of Washington state, with most moving to the Seattle and Longview areas. And the region saw a net loss of 4,753 people to other parts of Oregon — largely to Bend, Corvallis and Salem.
Key drivers of migration appear to be housing prices and job availability, according to state economists and population experts.
Charles Rynerson, the coordinator of the Oregon State Data Center, said places like San Francisco and New York saw their migration numbers drop, and places that are cheaper to live, like Boise, Idaho, and parts of the Midwest, were “famously net winners.”
Portland, he said, falls somewhere in the middle, both in cost of living and the job market.
“We have some tech economy, but not on the scale of San Francisco or Seattle,” he said.
The numbers, covering a five-year span through 2019, don’t yet reflect the impact of the coronavirus pandemic beginning in 2020, and they only begin to address a slowdown in Oregon’s population growth in the latter part of the last decade.
And Oregon population and economics experts said it’s difficult to say what exactly the data means over such a short period of time — especially when most people coming and going from the metro area aren’t traveling very far.
“When you’re talking about really small geographies like this, the question is, is this a long-term trend, or is this driven by a blip in the data?” said Josh Lehner, an economist for the state of Oregon.
It’s not surprising to see the steady flow of California residents moving to the area, he said. Historically, between 30% and 40% of the people moving to Oregon are coming from there.
People moving to Oregon from any states other than California tend to settle in the Portland area, Lehner said. And those moving within the state tend to move to the Willamette Valley, settling in mid-size cities like Salem, Corvallis and Eugene.
“That increases the potential of the economy and labor force, allowing local businesses to hire and expand at faster rates,” Lehner said. “That’s something Oregon has typically excelled at, and it’s probably the key reason we grow faster than other states. We have a strong influx of predominantly 20 and 30-somethings. That’s largely who moves here.”
But migration to Oregon has slowed over the past decade.
Lehner said economists have been looking at two factors that may have contributed to the slowdown, though there’s too little data available to say for certain.
One possibility, he said, is low unemployment right before the pandemic.
“Sixty to 70 percent of people say they move to Oregon for a job,” Lehner said. “But with the unemployment rate so low, it means there were better job opportunities in other places — opportunities may have become available more broadly around the country.”
Lehner said another possibility is the impact of Portland’s housing market on people coming to, or staying in, the area.
“We’ve been curious about whether or not the housing affordability challenges would push more people out of Portland,” he said. “And so far we haven’t seen that — but it makes sense that we would start to see that.”
He added that the housing market may also be deterring people from moving to Portland.
“It’s not so much that we’re forcing local residents to pack up and move away,” he said. “It’s more that if a 25-year-old is looking to move around the country, maybe we’re repelling people on that first step and they’re choosing not to come to Oregon.”
Outside of the West Coast, Portland saw its largest influxes in population from several of the nation’s main population centers: New York, Texas and the Washington, D.C., metro area.
About 1,100 people moved to the Portland area from Virginia, including the District of Columbia. Nearly a thousand New Yorkers moved to Portland, as well as more than 500 Texans.
Lehner said there has been a slight uptick in people moving from eastern states in the last decade, but the majority of Oregon’s population gains still come from much closer to home.
Lehner said it’s not yet clear how the pandemic will affect migration to and from the area.
“We had a migration slowdown at the start of the pandemic, with the shelter in place,” he said. “Since then, it’s picked up a little.”
But perhaps the biggest challenge from the pandemic will be simply tracking those numbers. Lehner said the Census Bureau does not plan to release its migration data for 2020, because of the poor return of surveys during the pandemic.