More residents say metro area is headed off track

People are losing faith in the future of the Portland metro area

A homeless person's belongings in a shopping cart outside their tent, March 13, 2017. (KOIN)

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — People are losing faith in the future of the Portland metro area in the face of growing social problems, including homelessness and the affordable housing crisis, according to a series of annual surveys conducted for TriMet.

Only 48 percent of regional residents said the Portland metropolitan area is generally headed in the “right direction” last year. That is a 12 percentage point drop from 2013 and 2014, when 60 percent felt that way.

Over the past four years, those who said the region has “gotten off on the wrong track” jumped from 25 to 39 percent.

During the same period, those who named a social issue as the major problem local governments should address nearly tripled, to 43 percent. Those picking homelessness and hunger as the top priorities more than doubled, to 26 percent. Housing increased from 2 to 17 percent.

Although the annual TriMet Attitude and Awareness surveys are intended to measure how residents feel about the regional transit agency, they have historically included questions to gauge the public mood on broader issues as well. The last four were conducted by Portland-based DHM Research. The 2016 one was released March 22.

“Social issues have definitely popped up as a top concern in the last few years, especially homelessness and affordable housing,” says DHM Research President and Principal Su Midghall.

According to Midghall, the firm has included such questions in many surveys over the years. She says it is not unusual for the right direction/wrong track figures to rise and fall over time. Although Midghall says the swings are most closely related to the economy, unemployment was near record lows last year when those saying the region was going in the right direction fell eight points from 2015. Those saying the region was off track in 2016 increased even more, gaining 12 points from the previous year.

But Midghall also says big events like the 9/11 terrorist attacks also can affect the ratings. The 2016 survey was conducted shortly after the November general election.

“Many people may have been unsure about the future,” Midghall says.

In statewide surveys, 66 percent of Oregonians said the state was headed in the right direction in early 2001, the highest figure the survey firm has ever seen. It plunged to just 21 percent shortly after the terrorist attacks, however, and has fluctuated over the years until lately. Now it is at 49 percent — almost identical to last year’s percentage in the metropolitan area.

That is unusual. Midghall says those living in urban areas are historically more likely to say things are moving in the right direction than those outside of them, sometimes by 10 points or more.

But according to DHM Research Vice President and Political Director John Horvick, such figures vary widely within the region, with some of the most pessimistic people living in Portland. For example, 76 percent of Tigard residents recently said their city is moving in the right direction, 22 points above the region as a whole last year.

“Portland is a soft spot in the region,” says Horvick, noting that many social problems, like homelessness, are more visible in the city.

TriMet riders have consistently felt more positive about the region than nonriders. In fact, a slim majority of riders, 52 percent, still said the region was going in the right direction in 2016. But that’s a sharp decrease from the 66 percent who felt that way in 2013. Meanwhile, 45 percent of nonriders said the region was off track last year, an eight-point jump from 2013.

The increase in concern over social issues has displaced transportation-related problems as the traditional top issue that local governments should address. In 2013, congestion, road repairs, expanding transit and providing more bike paths were prioritized by 28 percent of respondents. By 2016, such issues had fallen to 21 percent. In contrast, those prioritizing social issues jumped from 15 to 43 percent during that time.

No other issue even broke the 10 percent mark in the 2016 survey. School issues came in third with 9 percent, with everything else from taxes to crime and jobs at 6 percent or less.

The annual surveys contacted 800 to 1,000 people in the region through both land lines and cell phones. They have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 to 3.1 percent.

The Portland Tribune is a KOIN media partner.