Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

A Tale of Two Cities: Fleeing Portland for Boise

Why the Idaho capital has become a top destination for departing Oregonians

In 2015, Portland, Oregon, enjoyed its third year in a row as the number one moving destination in the country. Americans flocked to the City of Roses for its clean, lush environment, temperate climate, outdoor activities, and progressive culture. Miles of bike lanes, an extensive light rail system, city blocks designed for pedestrians, a burst of green buildings, and dedication to renewable energy also placed Portland as a national leader in sustainability.

But today Portlanders are fleeing en masse, many to Boise, Idaho. What has changed the minds of these Portland residents about the livability of their city? And what is it about Boise that is drawing so many Portlanders eastbound? Extensive violence compounded by a collapsing economy, out-of-control homeless problem, and high costs of living have left a once-thriving city heading towards demise.

Portland police have responded to close to 200 shootings since January 2021—a surge of 116 percent—the highest increase compared to other cities across the country statistics show. Even Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler admits crime is a problem, nine months after his June 9, 2020, pledge to divert $12 million from the police bureau and other city departments defunded three police units, including the gun violence reduction team. According to a March 10 report, “‘We see it has reached crisis proportions,’ said Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, speaking about the violence. ‘We are collectively unified in our desire to bring an end to it.’” That desire to quell the violence proves too little too late for many residents whose safety and livelihoods have been compromised beyond repair by passive, virtue-signaling politicians.

While Portland’s notorious reputation for months-long BLM riots and attacks on jails and courthouses by protesters has tainted its long-time status as one of America’s most livable cities, Governor Kate Brown’s unremitting COVID-19 lockdowns have extended the damage by ruining once-thriving small businesses.

The pandemic proved to be the final blow to many Portlanders, as Brown has maintained tight restrictions for more than a year. While other states around the country began lifting restrictions last summer, Brown lifted restrictions minimally, just to tighten them again in November. Gyms, salons, restaurants, and other small businesses across the city were unable to survive the extended lockdown. Anthony Smith of the Oregon National Federation of Independent Business issued a statement after the governor instituted the second freeze, stating:

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the overwhelming majority of businesses have done everything asked of them in order to keep their employees and customers safe, which is why “workplace outbreaks” at businesses that were previously required to shut down account for a very low number of the state’s total positive cases.

It simply doesn’t make any sense to impose further restrictions on businesses that provide safer, regulated spaces for Oregonians to engage in economic and social activities in masked and socially distanced atmospheres.

To make matters worse, Portland’s homeless problem is driving homeowners out of the area. Once a pristine city, boasting numerous public gardens, 150 miles of trails, and more than 200 parks, today a drive along Portland’s major freeways and through the heart of downtown reveals mountains of trash, tarps, and tents, as well as graffiti and used needles.

For decades, Portland’s lenient policies created a haven for transients. More recently, these policies have evolved from protecting those on the streets to rewarding them. Last year, city leaders handed out $500 gift cards to the homeless, and established camps, providing tents each on a 12-foot-by-12 foot plot of land near bathrooms, showers, and other amenities, fenced off from the public. More recently, Portland’s City Council has proposed “bending and breaking previous zoning rules to allow people in need of a safe place to sleep to find it, whether in RVs, tiny house villages, innovative semi-permanent structures and other non-traditional forms of shelter around the city” according to the Oregonian. The proposal, as currently written, would allow temporary sanctioned outdoor shelters in open spaces including parks, natural areas, and public golf courses.

While the homeless population reap government rewards, homeowners struggle to make ends meet as Oregonians pay the second highest income tax in the country. Thanks, in part, to this decade’s technology boom, as well as an influx of rich, recent transplants from other states, average housing costs have risen steadily in recent years. KOIN 6 News notes, “In January 2020, homes were selling for an average of 98.82% of the listing price. In January 2021, that number jumped to 103.9%, according to RMLS.” A residential review of the Portland Metro area shows that between February 2020 and February 2021, the average sale price of a home has increased 14.8 percent from $460,200 to $528,500. Also, between the same months, the median sale price has increased 15.3 percent from $407,500 to $470,000.

Burdened by increasing lawlessness, a collapsing economy, a large homeless population, and high living costs, businesses and residents have begun fleeing Portland, some to the suburbs, and many more out of state to Boise, Idaho.

United Van Lines reports that Boise topped the list of inbound moves in 2020, and “nearly two-thirds of this urban influx are well-educated millennials under 40, many of them relocating from much pricier West Coast metros like Seattle, San Francisco and Portland” according to livability.com.

An average of 234 days of sunshine, over 90 parks, a lower cost of living, a growing art scene, and outdoor activities draw many transplants to the area. The “Greenbelt”—a 25 mile stretch of paved trail along the Boise River—is perfect for walking, biking, jogging, and wildlife watching. U.S. News describes Idaho’s capital as sitting “squarely on the boundary of urban and rural, civilized and wild, refined and raw.” Furthermore, the promise of low crime, job stability, and conservative values are drawing many more Portlanders who yearn to raise their children in a safe, stable environment.

Boise realtor Josh Rudzek, associate broker at Silvercreek Realty Group, uprooted his family and career as a Portland realtor three years ago to move to Idaho. In an interview, Rudzek noted, “I’ve found that most of the people I meet moving from Portland are looking for stability and a culture that is more family-friendly and people-centric.”

“A more conservative location tied in with a lower cost-of-living and vast recreational activities has made Boise and the surrounding areas an irresistible transition for buyers as they visit,” he said. “The Treasure Valley is reminiscent of old Oregon when housing was affordable, homelessness and crime were less, and a neighbor was willing to help out just because they were your neighbor.”

Dionne and Brad Quick, longtime residents of Tigard—a Portland suburb—relocated to Boise last August with their two teenage daughters. In January 2020, Dionne realized her dream of moving her small business as a fitness instructor to people with special needs out of her home garage and into a local gym near Portland. She opened Uniquely Abled on March 3, 2020. But only weeks later, COVID-19 struck and her business, like many others, suffered. “By the time gyms were approved to open, the stipulations were so severe, I was unable to bring in the revenue needed to pay for the expenses to run the studio,” Dionne said. “As a small gym, I relied on providing group sessions, but was unable to do so with social distancing and capacity limitations.”

Meanwhile, Dionne’s husband, Brad, a deputy of 11 years with the Washington County Sheriff’s Department, watched fellow police officers in neighboring Multnomah County stand toe-to-toe with protesters and rioters. Witnessing politicians and the public turn on police officers in Portland, he realized the seriousness of the situation. He made the difficult decision to quit his job with the sheriff’s department after watching the poor treatment of Portland police officers and seeing crime skyrocket. Brad said he felt it was important to move his family to a safer city. “Portland is filthy and unsafe even during the day,” he said. “Boise’s leaders believe in law and order, which keeps the city safe. Unlike Oregon, which recently legalized all drugs, marijuana is illegal and violence is intolerable in Boise.”

As Portland crime skyrockets, Boise crime has decreased 9 percent, according to Boise Police who credit, in part, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The department adds, “The overall decline over the last few decades is also related to BPD’s growing community policing efforts.” Boise PD’s 2020 annual report to the community reveals the department responded to 151,897 calls for service—that is 1,061 fewer than the previous year.

Homelessness has not proven as significant a problem in Boise as in Portland to this point. According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, the entire state of Idaho had an estimated 2,315 people experiencing homelessness as of January 2019. This number stands in sharp contrast to the 4,177 homeless in the city of Portland alone as reported in May 2019. However, as Treasure Valley attracts new residents from along the west coast, rates of homelessness increase, as well. An NPR article notes that “Like many western cities, Boise is in the midst of an extraordinary affordable housing shortage. It’s also one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation, a source of tension in some corners.”

A potential silver lining to the threatening homeless problem is found in a burgeoning job market. In fact, Idaho took the No. 1 spot for its economic growth according to the 2021 U.S. News Best States rankings, also coming in strong for its business environment, growth, and employment. The article cites Bill Connors of the Boise Metro Chamber who stated, “Our state government is stable. It’s not doing wild shifts politically.… Yes, it’s conservative and business-friendly, but it’s stable.”

Boise’s elected officials would be wise to learn from Portland’s mistakes in dealing with the now-uncontrollable homeless problem, establishing solutions early on that will curtail sprawling camps that spill into residential neighborhoods and onto city streets.

Upon her 2020 election, Boise’s mayor Lauren McLean indicated that she recognized how increasing taxes related to escalating home values can cause financial struggles for residents. Because of this, she has made lessening property tax burdens a high priority. McLean did not raise Boise’s property tax collections in the 2021 budget, nor did she make any substantial cuts to services for residents. But the 3 percent merit-based raise that city employees have received every year since 2014 was suspended this year to balance the budget and avoid increasing property tax rates. McLean would be wise to follow through and determine other areas where money could be saved to ensure residents who are housed remain that way.

Despite the rising housing market, many Boiseans consider the city’s growth an asset, recognizing the benefits of a booming economy thanks, in part, to entrepreneurs and startups introduced to the Treasure Valley. However, the common warning to newcomers remains clear: “Don’t Portland our Boise.” The people of Boise have maintained a lawful city and thriving economy, which could be upended as by throngs of Portlanders, whose history of voting for dangerous policies and progressive politics has damaged a once-beautiful city and healthy economy.

Kathleen Bustamante is a freelance writer and college writing instructor in Portland, Oregon.

This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.