Thursday, June 19, 2008


Looking for housing in Portland has been an eye-opening experience, but not in the ways you might expect. I understand that Austin is a desirable city with lots to offer: steps away from nature; a local, unique vibe in the culture; lots of art; low crime; a friendly population; overall good weather; beautiful scenery. But let's face it: it's also incredibly overpriced for what you get. Especially considering that as big of a city as it is, there are very limited job opportunities. And now that everyone is converting shitty apartments all over town into overpriced condos, there is swiftly becoming a very shrunken rental market. Gone are the days when you can survive in this town on minimum wage, or even really twice minimum wage.

So I expected Portland to be very expensive and for house-hunting there to be a formidable and frustrating process. It's a coastal city, everybody loves it, they have severe anti-sprawl laws to prevent suburbs and create density. But it seems like a renter's market. I have no idea what it's like to actually try to buy a home there, but renting? It's cheaper than Austin.

In Portland (at least what I've found so far) you can get a 1,000 square foot, 2-bedroom home, with wood floors, huge windows, a yard, right on the bus line, 2 blocks from the MAX (light-rail) line, a block or three from restaurants, coffee shops, bars, grocery stores, and cafes, for about $1,200. And about 2 miles from downtown. (Incidentally, within the downtown area, which encompasses several square miles, all the public transportation is free! Buses and trains.) And that's not rare. Hell, I've found 2-bedroom, corner-unit condos in brand new high-rise buildings downtown for $1,050!

That tells me either that the economy there totally sucks (which may or may not be valid), or these ads are all fakes, like the ones in the back of the Chronicle, where when you call about them the realtor says, "Oh, I just leased that unit literally an hour ago! But I have this other great unit, just a little more expensive....", or it's just a lot cheaper to live there. For whatever reason.

So why is Austin so expensive? There aren't a lot of great jobs. The traffic is wretched. There is no public transportation to speak of. All of about two neighborhoods are walkable, at least as far as anything useful is concerned. And the voters of Travis County just elected Laura Morrison to city council, which means, apparently, that they share her vision of being anti-density, anti-light rail, anti- toll roads, pro-parking lots, pro-sprawl, pro-McMansion Ordinance.

I just don't get it. I was talking to a friend of mine at work who's my age, and grew up in Austin (5th-generation), and he blames a lot of it on out-of-state real estate investors coming in and jacking up the market to be more along California's real estate level. Even though it's totally unwarranted.

I don't really know enough about real estate to agree or disagree, but it makes sense. The market has to be determined by something, and despite what it claims, Austin is very sprawly and big, so it shouldn't cost so fucking much to live here. When I moved here from Dallas, I was in shock when I learned how much apartments rented for here. And that was almost 10 years ago.

I do think Austin is a wonderful city and has a lot to offer (I'd still rather live here than almost anywhere else), but when it comes to its "progressive" reputation, it really has a lot to live up to. And I get more and more scared everyday that it never will. Being progressive is more than shopping at Whole Foods and supporting gay marriage. It's a lifestyle, and a way of thinking about things that looks to the future and tries to create a better world for everybody, not constantly yearning for a past that's gone and sucking as much money as possible out of people just trying to live in a nice place without offering anything in return. I'm pretty sure light rail is officially dead in this town forever. That's really a shame, and really depressing, because the time to build it was about a decade ago.

My friend at work is funny. He's actually moving to London next year because his wife is an art historian or something over there and makes a decent living. So he told me that he's trying to convince himself that Austin totally sucks now and make himself hate it so that it won't be so hard to leave. Maybe in a way that's what I'm doing too. I just don't seem to have any patience left for anything here. But I know the root is just an impatience and excitement to begin my new life. I'm looking forward to it. I am enjoying what time I have left here, though. In the past week, I've been to Barton Springs once and Deep Eddy twice (it would have been Barton all three times, except it's closed on Thursdays. Grrr!!). Just to lay in the sun and soak it all in. I got very sad at Barton Springs on Monday. That place is so incredible, and the people-watching is a riot. I hope someone, somewhere, figures out a way to save this place from itself. I might just want to come back someday.


bryan h. said...

I've heard great things about Portland, too, but I'm going to defend Austin agaisnt these scurrilous accusations.

"Gone are the days when you can survive in this town on minimum wage, or even really twice minimum wage."

When exactly were those days? When was the last time making the minimum wage (or even twice it, at about $10/hr) allowed you to survive anywhere, let alone a place with as much technology money as Austin?

This place is expensive because there's money here, which will be true of any place that's expensive. Places where people can afford to pay higher costs will have higher costs.

On the whole there are, relative to many other states, plenty of jobs here. I assume that by "limited job opportunities" you're referring to some specific sector of the job market. The jobs that are tight here are likely to be the jobs that are tight elsewhere, too.

Also, Portland is a bit more expensive than Austin. I checked it out on this website ( and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

I think you'd also meet a whole lot of people you might deem worthy of being called "progressive" if you went out and looked for them.

M1EK said...

it IS cheap to live "in Austin" if you use the part of it that is the big sprawly mess. And as long as you don't count transportation.

The difference is, of course, in quality of life. Good quality living exists in both places, but in much higher quantity in Portland. So Austin has a lot more cheap crap, so the price of the crap is lower, but Portland has a lot more of the good stuff, hence the price of the good stuff is lower.

bryan h. said...

I'm pretty sure both places have the same crap.