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Despite crossover, different issues motivate people who left Portland compared to those who remain, survey finds

Homelessness emerged as the clear top concern for Portlanders in a recent survey, but it wasn't the primary reason cited by people who moved away.

PORTLAND, Ore. — To most Portlanders, the results of a recent survey commissioned by the city to identify areas in need of improvement will come as no surprise. Respondents identified homelessness, community safety and cost of living as the city's top problems.

Homelessness stood out from the pack as the biggest challenge, with more than 44% of respondents saying it was their top concern. By contrast, 21% named cost of living and 19% said safety. Racial discrimination and climate change were the next highest concerns, but neither cracked 4%.

The Portland Insights Survey was sent throughout the city for people over the age of 16 to complete. The city's budget office, which facilitated the survey, received about 5,300 responses.

It was intended to give city leaders a better idea of what's really weighing on the minds of Portlanders, and by extension the people who left the city within the last several years, presumably so leaders can make decisions that address those concerns.

Tell us how you really feel

Respondents were able to anonymously write out their opinions on each section — many of which saw considerable overlap. For example, here's what one person wrote about the issue of homelessness:

"Homelessness is the biggest problem which is tied to lack of affordability. HOWEVER, the biggest issue is our handling of the homeless problem. The homeless population and permissiveness of camping everywhere has led to rampant property crimes and lack of public safety."

When it came to where city leaders should focus their budget, people surveyed again overwhelmingly pointed toward affordable housing and homeless services. Nearly half of respondents chose that option. Safety services like police, fire and 911 dispatch were the next-highest priority.

On the issue of safety, the survey asked whether people feel safe walking around during daytime and nighttime hours, in their own neighborhoods versus downtown — and the location did make a difference.

RELATED: East Portlanders most dissatisfied with city's safety and quality of life, survey finds

During the day, about 42% of people said that they feel safe walking around Portland's central city. About 35% said they didn't feel safe downtown, even during the day.

At night, a whopping 72% of people said that they don't feel safe walking around the central city, with only 21% saying that they feel safe.

Here's a sampling of some of the comments on that section:

"It's not safe to walk alone in this city anymore."

"I wouldn't go at night because I would be afraid to get killed outside."

Another person had specific concerns about safety as a result of racism:

"Currently I do not feel safe for myself or my wife to walk around in downtown Portland. Asian hate crimes and mental health homeless challenges changed my mindset in regards to safety. I currently do not recommend any friends or family go visit or come to Portland due to the safety concerns." 

People reported not feeling safe on public transit, walking or biking through the city, or even taking their kids to school. They blamed those feelings on Portland's increased rates in certain types of crime, public drug use, people sleeping in public areas, speeding drivers and people having mental health crises.

They also blamed Portland police; either for being slow to respond, not responding at all, or not following up on reports of crime.

Respondents also tended to think that Portland has gotten filthy. Nearly 74% said that Portland's streets were not clean enough.

Cash exodus

There are growing signs that these types of concerns could be translating into action — flight. People are moving away from Portland and Multnomah County, and they're taking a lot of money with them.

The Oregonian recently did an analysis of this trend. They took a look at data released by the Internal Revenue Service, concluding that people who left Multnomah County in 2020 and 2021 took more than a billion dollars in income with them, a record loss for the county. 

WORTH YOUR TIME: Multnomah County lost record $1 billion in income between 2020 and 2021 as residents moved away

More than 14,000 tax filers and their dependents left in a single year, The Oregonian reported. Most of them were higher earners.

So how does that impact the people still living here? The Story turned to a Multnomah County economist to learn more.

"First the available labor force shrinks so there are fewer people that are able to work the available jobs," explained economist Jake Procino. "And with fewer people working, there is less money coming into the local economy — so, from an economic perspective you don't like that ... but with less people earning income, you have fewer people paying taxes, so city services or government services could potentially decline and it could also lead to stuff like school closures."

There are benefits to people moving away. Less traffic, smaller class sizes, perhaps even more available housing in an extremely tight market. But Procino said that those benefits will be marginal, and won't do much to offset the hit to the local economy.

On a smaller scale, we're already beginning to see this effect play out. The number of people who commute to Multnomah County each day has fallen dramatically since before the pandemic, and it's impacting the job market.

"This has had a huge effect, especially in Portland and Multnomah County, because there's about an estimated 59,000 fewer people in the county during the workday," Procino said. "It's a 6% decline from 2019, so this has had an effect on mostly service positions — across the city, but mostly in the downtown core."

Procino said that leisure and hospitality employment is down 16% from 2019, translating to about 9,000 job.

In the Portland Insights Survey, people overwhelmingly identified homelessness, affordability and crime as the city's biggest issues, with homelessness way out in front. But when it comes to the reasons why people are leaving, affordability stood out more than anything else.

About 37% of people who left Portland within the last five years said that they did so because they found a more affordable home. The other top reasons had more to do with their personal lives than with wider issues in the city; they left to be closer to work, school, family or friends, or for a better job or school district.

Only about 10% of people said they left the city because they were concerned about public safety and violence. Less than 7% said they left because of homelessness.

While there's inevitably some crossover between these issues, as some of the previous comments illustrate — some people might be more willing to live in an expensive city that is simultaneously clean, safe and responsive to its most vulnerable residents — the bottom line is that the city's top problems don't necessarily explain why people are moving out.

The bodied politic

The Portland Insights Survey was supposed to get an idea of the city's problems so that officials can try to fix them, so it stands to reason that it asked for thoughts on how city government is working. The results, again, are unlikely to surprise.

Just over half of respondents said that Portland does not have an effective government. Less than a quarter of respondents, 23%, think city leaders are doing well.

In written responses, many people directly blamed Portland's leaders for the city's current issues:

"Because of weak political leadership, I watched my own neighborhood grow substantially more unsafe over the last 2 years."

"The local government has failed to meet the challenges of the last 4-5 years. The city is in total disarray."

The Story airs at 6:30 p.m. every weekday on KGW. Got a question or comment for the team? Shoot an email to thestory@kgw.com or call and leave a voicemail at 503-226-5090.

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