Have Private Backyards Been Outlawed in the Portland Metro Area?

By John Glennon


Anyone searching for a new home in the Portland metropolitan region will find a puzzling contrast between the supply of land and the size of yards in new residential lots. On the periphery of the region, there is an abundance of underutilized vacant land that easily could be converted to housing with decent-sized yards. Yet, most of that land lies fallow, while virtually all new residential developments tend to be apartments, condominiums, row houses, or detached single-family houses on tiny lots. Anyone with children hoping to find a backyard big enough to put in a pool or toss a Frisbee likely will have to find a house built decades ago.

This paper is an attempt to determine if the apparent disappearance of private backyards is merely an illusion or the result of specific policy choices by government. The author has closely examined zoning codes for all three local counties, as well as a representative cross-section of incorporated cities, to see if the traditional suburban yard has been outlawed. For the purpose of this survey, “traditional” lot size is defined as roughly 4-5 units/acre (an acre is 43,500 SF).

While there is some variation among jurisdictions, it does appear that the absence of standard-sized backyards among new home products is real and deliberate, the result of conscious policy choices made by legislators, state land use regulators, and regional overseers at Metro.

In a geographically large, lightly populated state that is roughly 98% open space, the policy focus on high-density urban development throughout the entire metro region is somewhat surprising. Most young parents, seeking a moderate amount of private yard space at a reasonable price, probably would be shocked to learn that the price of buildable land has been deliberately inflated through government rationing, and that the backyards they are seeking have been outlawed.

This paper provides details on where, why, and how backyards have been eliminated and suggests some ways to
moderate land use regulations.


John Glennon prepared this report while serving as a research associate for Cascade Policy Institute. He is a
graduate of Indiana University Bloomington.

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