Ward Consolidation and Environment

Instead of attending our ward yesterday morning, I drove out to the edge of the city to the stake center for a special meeting.  A great deal of the Portland East stake was reconfigured this week with 4 wards consolidated into 3.  We all knew it was coming and that my particular ward was going to bear the brunt of the divvying up as we had all been released from our callings the week before.

Relatively new to this stake, I had little interest in the shuffling of (male) leadership positions; given the rubber necking, this may be the primary reason why most people attend this type of meeting.  I mostly went because (a) I was curious as to when church would be next week and (b) I was also curious what would be the official demographic story.  The stake presidency didn’t disappoint with a lengthy (even more so than I expected) explanation of urban demographics.  This happens to be in my professional wheel house, so it was with almost giddiness that I mentally compared the narrative presented with what I know to be the Portland narrative.  I present these to you here because I think it actually says a lot about cultural/environmental ethos in Mormon culture.

Mormon narrative: As an inner-city stake, we lost significant population – mostly young families – from the inner-city wards to the suburbs in the the early 2000.  While this trend has stabilized since 2006, the wards are small enough in terms of YOUTH programs to warrant consolidation.  In other words, the wards are big enough in terms of adult priesthood numbers, but the bulk of the wards are retirement age (or older).  This happens often in urban stakes.  The region has been growing and the stake is growing when you consider the suburban edge wards.  (And, since we are the ones still here, we tiptoe around the rumors of of better schools and bigger/cheaper houses in the suburbs.)

At this point, I must say as an aside that it was  disappointing in terms of gender.  At least 80% of the examples of our youth programs suffering were actually of our YM programs suffering… how we don’t have enough YM to pass the sacrament, etc.  While I agree with the sentiment that having enough youth and enough members to appropriately staff youth programs is a significant marker of a healthy ward, I completely reject the narrative that youth=YM. 

Portland narrative:  In the mid/late 2000s, Portland Public School district was caught by surprise when kindergarten enrollments exceeded expectations for several years in a row.  The 90s were rough for PPS; a new tax/education policy resulted in quite a bit of flight to the suburbs.  By 2000, PPS was in school closing mode.  So to see kindergarten enrollments jump was a bit strange. Indeed, when PPS asked some academic demographers to look at the numbers primarily to identify where to NOT close schools.  The result:  enrollments seemed to be jumping in the inner neighborhoods with a high median age.

The working thesis is that as the elderly leave their family homes they bought in the 60s and 70s, the houses are turned over to the young generation.  As fairly large bungalow/craftsman style homes from the 1910-40s, the young generation comes in and updates the homes that were usually last updated in the 70s.  Instead of leaving when their first child turns 5, the family sticks around longer.  This is in stark contrast to almost every other American inner city where even if you can lure the young professionals in, the cohort turns over when they marry and have kids.  Schools is often the driver, so this shift in demographic trends represents a wonderful development for PPS and a true stability in the return to the inner city for Portland.

I should also note that SF and NYC also saw increased enrollments in the late 2000s.  Both cities have, in part, explained this increase due to economic downturn causing a shift from private to public schools as well as a return to the city phenomenon.  Yet Portland has never been a big private school town and this explanation seemed inadequate.

So why are people staying and deciding to stick with the schools and fight for change instead of moving out to the suburbs where admittedly you can get a bigger, newer house for cheaper?

Portland is one of the few American cities where the inner neighborhoods are more desirable than the outer city/suburbs and the housing prices reflect it.  Planning geeks suggest it is due to Portland’s ‘up not out’ policy that stems from Oregon’s unique land use system.  By OR law, regions (or towns if rural) must draw an urban growth boundary (UBG) to accommodate population growth for the next 20 years and preserve open space for farming/ranching and forest.  While there is nothing to state how dense inside the UBG must be, Portland Metro chooses to be pretty restrictive in their boundary.  The state planning laws also require you to show how your population will get around town.  To show how the region can support increasingly high density, Portland’s regional Metro government puts tons of $$ into regional transit systems, incentives using transit with high parking prices downtown, etc.  Metro has also started to put in mixed use transit centers along the rail lines that are to serve as the European equivalent of town centers as we move from a single central business district to a multi-modal region. The result is that to live in an inner neighborhood within about 5 miles of downtown (<30 min commute on bus) or along a regional light rail line is highly desirable.  The closer to the city, the more desirable.  When combined with a UGB that European lit shows artificially inflates housing prices, the entire region has gone from significantly undervalued housing stock in the early 80s to a robust housing market.  The inner neighborhoods reflect this even more and have become hip places to live.

Ok, so if you’ve made it this far, you get an A for the Oregon land-use lesson.  My question centers on this:  Young families apparently seem willing to take advantage of the great single family housing stock within 5 miles of the city center and fun neighborhoods by enrolling their kids in the schools and getting involved in the PTA.  These families pay a 10-20% premium for a house (although it was still laughable as to how large a home you could get in the inner city during the early 2000s) but make it up in lower commuting costs/time.  By doing so, they are supporting a more sustainable land-use system that preserves farm land and open space.

BUT, Mormon families are not willing to do this… they are still fleeing the inner-city.  Why?  As I see it, there are 4 explainations:

(1) Mormons of my generation (you know, the 20-40 year olds) need a larger than normal home for their large families and therefore buy in the suburbs.  This seems a bit weird to me as the housing stock in inner Portland routinely has 3-4 beds with finish-able attics and basements.  For instance, we just bought a 3 bed/1.5 bath house for approximately $200K that, with the attic finished, could easily be a 4 bd, 2.5 bath house at 2400 sq ft with an additional unfinished basement.  Sure, it isn’t a McMansion, but this should be enough for the average Mormon family of 3 to 4 kids.  Sure, we got a good deal, but these deals were all over the place in the early 2000s when Mormon flight was at it’s height.

(2) Mormons of my generation want a new build home.  This might reflect a preference for new (with larger rooms and closets) or a resistance to restoration of the early 1900s stock of homes where you might have 3 or 4 beds but only 1 bath.

(3) Mormons are risk adverse in the perception of schools.  Part of the Portland narrative is that young families are saying ‘we’ll band together and improve these schools’ but Mormons seem unwilling to take this risk.  Granted, this is not universally true as the woman in my new ward that sat in my row yesterday is also PTA president in our (rough but improving) neighborhood school.  Maybe she is the exception.

(4) There might be something going on in social ethos and the insularity of Mormon life… to be a part from the world.  Many of the young families in the central city are the ‘weird’ kind… you know, the ones that have a tattoo or a piercing, don’t put on makeup to leave the house, are vegetarians as often as not, get by on one car by choice, limit plastic toys in their home, raise chickens, put a garden in their front (!!!) yard, etc.

So which one is it? or did I miss something altogether?


25 responses to “Ward Consolidation and Environment

  1. KLC June 13, 2011 at 1:36 pm

    I think you missed something altogether. The hip, educated families that moved closer to the urban core almost certainly have two incomes. Those two incomes make more expensive housing less of a hurdle. The predominantly single income LDS families decide to maximize their housing dollars farther out in the suburbs and tolerate the longer commutes.

  2. Nicole I June 13, 2011 at 2:02 pm

    I think that is only a partial explanation.

    Portland is littered with woman who work less than full time, if at all, in order to stay home with their kids. I go to library day with them ALL the time. And it isn’t as if their husbands are upper class professionals… many of them are just regular middle class people.

    It may be an explanation only in that Mormon women tend to have kids in their young 20’s while it seems many of the stay at home moms I see of toddlers and preschoolers here in the city wait until their late 20s and therefore might have a better chance at contributing to a down payment and repairs before choosing to stay home.

  3. Jessica June 13, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    I don’t know what the answer is, but you’re making me want to move to Portland. Craftsman homes for 200K?! And I could have a front-yard garden? !

  4. Nicole I June 13, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    It is possible! The place where 20 somethings come to retire as Portlandia says! The trick is to find a job first. Unemployment is brutal.

  5. jks June 13, 2011 at 3:22 pm

    I’m 15 miles from downtown Seattle and we have the same demographic problem. Ward was eliminated in 2004. Now the same problem again. Currently they combined youth/primary mid-week activities but not Sundays. Not ideal.
    I think everyone leaves because every else has left. We feel like everyone else has left but we look around and can’t see anything better around near here. They have usually left to move out of state or out of town (all our friends who bought in 2000-2003 have disappeared), but a few years ago I guess many people did move farther out when they bought rather than buying here so if they had bought here back in 2005-2008 they might still around for our older kids.
    Mormons seem to be mobile. Almost all of our friends from 10-12 years ago have moved away. All we do is say goodbye. The ones with older kids don’t seem to move in here. We just have nursery kids.
    It does seem to be ideal to buy a new house in a cookie cutter street where everyone who moves in is a young family so your kids get to grow up together. But there is no new construction here.

  6. Nicole I June 13, 2011 at 3:50 pm

    Thanks for sharing a Seattle experience JKS. Our stake (and the stake to the south of us) has also messed around with ‘mega mutual night’ activities – somewhere in between youth conference and regular mutual – and combined youth nights between neighboring wards to try and close the gap. The stake to the south of us does a combined primary I think with a ward and a special needs branch. All of these things seem to be band-aids.

    There does seem to be an inertia thing going on. Everyone in the ward/stake starts moves to X,Y, and Z suburb… we want our kids to grow up with Mormon children, thus we move to X,Y or Z. But it is really frustrating for those of us still in the city and desire to remain in the city as a commitment to localized living and small commutes. Because there are so many kids reappearing within the city, it now comes down to choosing to stay and my kid having few Mormon friends or leaving and needing another car, spouse doing a long commute, non-walkable community, etc.

  7. mfranti June 13, 2011 at 5:11 pm


    I live in one of those neighborhoods near the city center. I’m close to bus/traxx lines, work, school, etc. It’s a small home in a decidedly middle class neighborhood, and as soon as the young families start cranking out the kids, they move to the ‘burbs.

    It’s not that Mormons (and modern American families) need a bigger home, they want a bigger home.

    I think JKS said something about the ‘ideal” being a new (bigger) house on Oak lane, but why is that the ideal?

    I can’t imagine how much it costs to heat/light/cool a 2500-3000 sf home but I’m sure it’s a lot more than what I’m paying for my 800-1000 sf home (ok, I have a basement).

    If people really want to save money, they might look to living closer to the city where they work and living smaller. They’ll save money on gas and car maintenance (imagine if they used a bike to commute the 3 or 5 miles to work?!) and they’d save money on utils.

    (and here’s where I’m gonna stop because this is one of my ‘issues’ and I’d hate to make someone feel uncomfortable for their lifestyle for keeping up with…er, lifestyle choices)

  8. Nicole I June 13, 2011 at 9:02 pm

    Mfranti – I tend to agree that it is a want rather than a need. And, I also agree that you can save a bundle by living closer to the workplace of the primary working spouse. I know one of the reasons we can swing me not working (or working to clear the tuition bill) is because we only have 1 car that is rarely driven and completely paid off. This is actually becoming increasingly true of a lot of middle class family living in inner Portland.

    And I get that living in the inner city as I do is a lifestyle choice, I really do. What I don’t get is why Mormons privilege the large, nice looking home over all else. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t even make sense if you ignore the environment because other than a perverse cultural protestant work ethic, I cannot find a compelling doctrine or community (other than inertia) reason for it.

    Nor does it seem to me to be in line with ‘family’ values. That time resource that always gets thrown around as ‘just a bit longer commute’ for a house that suites the family’s need is a big deal in my mind. Who cares if one parent is home all day long if the other parent only sees the kids on weekends because after 8 hours of work a day, 1.5-2 hours of commuting time, and bishopricing (or whatever other church calling is taking over family life), he is never home?

  9. mfranti June 13, 2011 at 9:21 pm

    I need a “like” button for that last comment.

  10. el oso June 13, 2011 at 9:46 pm

    I live 30 miles from work, and it is primarily to keep my family near to a large population of church members/upper middle class people. I could have a much shorter commute, but the distance to many social activities for the rest of the family would be much greater.
    There are 4 top school districts in the metro area. Two of these make up the bulk of 2 large wards each. One is divided into 3-4 wards and the other is divided up among 5 different wards (some of these overlap each other). The big city school district has by far the most students, but there is not a single ward where all of the youth are from the big city schools. Those families just do not choose to live there very often. Other, less prestigious suburban school districts make up a portion of some of the wards. You have to go 45 minutes from downtown to find the nearest ward that does not include one of the “best” schools. 70% of my ward has moved here in the past 10 years. They have options as to where to live and choose to be near other LDS. Converts are spread more evenly throughout the area.

  11. jks June 13, 2011 at 9:51 pm

    mfranti – It is “ideal” because your child can go to church and not be the only 11 year old child and the only 5th grader in the ward. It is “ideal” because your 13 year old isn’t the only beehive doesn’t have combined 12-18 young women’s lessons that only have three young women. I like a lot of things about where we live….we don’t even live IN Seattle, we are a suburb, but I’m not sure where to move to that would be better. We have a three year old too so I think even if we moved for the older kids (surely there’s a ward somewhere that isn’t deserted), what’s to guarantee that families won’t grow up or move away and my youngest has no peers?
    Luckily, I realize no place is perfect. Even if I occasionally wish for a cookie cutter family street, I’m sure there would be some huge negatives. What would I do in a large ward with all those people my age?

  12. Nicole I June 13, 2011 at 10:04 pm

    el oso: are the differences in school quality really that different? What do Mormons look for in school districts? And what to make of the Portland case where the non-Mormon population actually seems to be reversing the trend and returning to the big city district but the Mormons aren’t following?

    jks said: ‘We have a three year old too so I think even if we moved for the older kids (surely there’s a ward somewhere that isn’t deserted), what’s to guarantee that families won’t grow up or move away and my youngest has no peers?’

    I also find this troubling. It is almost as if the Mormon population in regions outside of the Mormon Cultural Hearth pick up and move every decade or so. You either follow them or get left behind. And heaven forbid your children toggle two different generations. Why do you think everyone moved away 10 years ago? To be closer to schools, family, job?

  13. mfranti June 13, 2011 at 10:07 pm

    It has never occured to me to move based on who I or my kids might go to church with.

    I must be doing something wrong.

  14. Nicole I June 13, 2011 at 10:22 pm

    WHAT Mfranti!?! Your whole entire life, social and otherwise, does not revolve around the size and composition of your ward? You mean you have a community outside your ward? How can that be?

  15. Nicole I June 13, 2011 at 10:23 pm

    For another interesting Mormon demographic phenomenon, go check out BCC’s new post http://bycommonconsent.com/2011/06/13/either-little-provo-or-the-red-light-district/#comment-225173

  16. mfranti June 13, 2011 at 10:36 pm

    Nope. I’m too lazy to research the specific flavor of vanilla mormon I want to live next to.

    Instead, I chose to live next to non-members and members of all colors and of lower to middle class incomes. Diversity and proximity were the deciding factors when we chose this location.

    If my child was the only sunbeam or beehive in a class, it might suck or the stake could get creative and combine ward activities-or not.
    It is a privileged person that has the luxury of [choosing] to live within a [Mormon] echo chamber.

    I wonder how the Saints in Maine or Kentucky deal.

  17. Nicole I June 13, 2011 at 10:48 pm

    Common, you have to have a preference between french vanilla and vanilla? Seriously, what IS the difference between those two flavors of ice cream besides the little black dots?!

    You do bring up a good point. Being able to move to be closer to church members is a sign of privilege in more ways than one. And somewhat ironic given that suburban Mormons often act like it takes money to live in the city. I wonder how much Mormon suburban flight there will be now that the housing market bubble has burst and taken mobility with it given underwater mortgages and all? Maybe THAT is the stabilization my stake has seen in the past few years?

  18. mfranti June 13, 2011 at 10:59 pm

    I think it’s more of a brand thing. The cheapo store brand wont taste as good as Bryers et al.

    Oh gawd. Someone’s gonna take offense to my vanilla Mormon comment. If you do, think back to your days in Provo/BYU.

  19. jks June 14, 2011 at 12:03 am

    Several questions to answer and comments to respond to:
    1. “It has never occured to me to move based on who I or my kids might go to church with.” Try having a 13 year old girl. Last year her best friend at church was a boy who was 3 years older. Suddenly it seemed unfortunate that there weren’t more girls his age for him to hang out with, and our tall, intelligent, outspoken daughter was the one he got along with. Ordinarily 10 graders don’t befriend 7th graders like that. But if they are in Sunday School together and happen to be the two class members who speak up and interact and discuss things, what can a parent do? I can’t tell her to quit speaking up. However, as you can see, we have NOT moved. But I will admit to taking stock and wondering. Unfortunately, I am unaware of a Mormon mecca/family friends are to move TO.
    2. “I also find this troubling. It is almost as if the Mormon population in regions outside of the Mormon Cultural Hearth pick up and move every decade or so. You either follow them or get left behind. And heaven forbid your children toggle two different generations. Why do you think everyone moved away 10 years ago? To be closer to schools, family, job?” Some of them went on to graduate school Many of the young families have always been transplants. They bought houses a year or two out of school just like we did. But they didn’t have roots to hold them here when a new job offer came along. Everyone didn’t move away 10 years ago, I was refering to the people who bought 10-12 years ago have moved away. There is a constant trickle in and trickle out. It just seems that young couples with 1.5 children trickle in and out (mostly apartments), but families with 3 or 4 children only trickle out. The fact is that our ward has plenty of apartments and smaller homes to medium size. But no homes with 5 bedrooms. We moved from a smaller home to a larger home and what I needed the most was a master bathroom and an eating area to seat more than four people. We didn’t get more bedrooms, but we got a master bath and good eating area for a family.
    3. We aren’t downtown, but we did manage to make it for years with one car. We recently bought a second car. With four kids it started to become impossible to manage with one car. What if I want to go to bookclub but one of my children needs to go somewhere else? I got used to the lifestyle that if my husband went somewhere on a Saturday I was stuck at home. No problem. But with three kids with activities it meant that two people really had to be different places all the time.
    4. I have always wanted to stick to the shorter commute for my husband. We live close to the highway. But I get what el oso is saing. I would love to have my children’s activities be closer. It is not convenient to have to drive 15 minutes for every soccer game and soccer practice. Thankfully, some are closer, but at this point in my life the driving to activities is the biggest hindrance to family life. I much prefer ballet because it is nearby and it means I can drop her off and then come home and make dinner. So now I think it would be ideal to live on a family street and have school, grocery story, piano lesson, taekwondo, church, soccer field, volleyball court all nearby. But, I have plenty of blessings to count in the house I really like (even if I wouldn’t mind two more bedrooms) and the schools I like and the ward I like (even if it seems post-apocalyptic).

  20. Jenne Erigero Alderks June 14, 2011 at 10:50 am

    You third point also gets at something I have noticed. There is definitely the homeschool contingent of Mormons that tend to leave rather than stick around and work for change. I also think this tendency reflects an avoidance of progressive/activist behavior. Even with the calls from GAs to be involved in our communities and to work for their betterment, its rather uncommon to see Mormons who are actively involved in community organizing. I’ll suggest that its due to fear of being labeled “Democrat.”

    I also think that it might be related to the Mormon view of the end of days. Mormons teach that the world is going to become degraded and more corrupt as times go on despite their best efforts to do anything about. You don’t see Mormons giving their best effort when they have that level of discouragement informing them. The logic goes, since we are promised to fail, why try? There might even be a sense of “if we don’t help make the world a better place, maybe that will hasten the Second Coming.”

  21. missy. June 14, 2011 at 12:55 pm

    Jenne, I totally agree–your second paragraph rings true to many things I’ve been hearing people say since we moved back to Utah. Yesterday I heard someone say (over the pulpit) “There sure have been a lot of natural disasters lately. But they are going to continue to happen because they are part of the Second Coming.” I hear comments like these a lot, and what I hear in them is 1) The deterioration of the world is something outside of our control and unrelated to our choices (cough*global warming*cough). 2) Because the world is guaranteed to get worse before it gets better, there is no reason to interfere with the process and try to make things better. And I even sometimes hear: 3) “Natural” disasters and other crises are forms of punishment levied upon unfaithful nations and peoples… which means a) if I am faithful I will be protected from such punishments and b) I really have no obligation to help people in difficult situations because they have brought their adversity upon themselves.

    For the record, I categorically reject all three of these ideas.

  22. el oso June 14, 2011 at 6:50 pm

    Nicole I,
    “are the differences in school quality really that different?” They are not the sole determinative factor, since the differences are not always that large. There are also some smaller schools that are good quality, but they cannot get a critical mass of LDS or of other services nearby.
    I think that it is a combined effect of schools, nearby shopping, cultural activities (dance, music, sports, etc.), and the more stable home prices that all contribute. There are nice condos and apartments downtown, with several nearby renovating neighborhoods, but the only members that I knew from this area were empty nesters.
    The majority of active ward members are at least semi-transient, having moved to the area to work when they had children at home although some have stayed and retired now. There are at least 3 adult members of the ward who have young children whose parents live in nearby older neighborhoods in other wards. In 2 of these 3 cases the primary breadwinner shares at least 10 miles of the same commute with me.

  23. TV Free June 15, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    mfranti – you asked how the saints in Maine or KY deal….we just moved from LExington (KY) to the south PUget Sound area to be closer to family. Our ward in KY was interesting – there were NO other LDS families in our older, reasonably priced, semi-urban neighborhood. On the other hand, the bulk of our ward lived in one of two subdivisions: one about 10 years old, with 200-300K homes in it; the other a brand new subdivision with 400-600K homes in it. We had a huge youth program (40+ youth attending temple trips just from our ward) and a normal sized primary.

    Our kids would have gone to a different elementary school, but the same middle and high school as the expensive subdivisions.

    We were not in KY long enough to know what the other wards in the stake were like; I do know that we had more youth in our ward than the rest of the stake combined.

    I don’t understand the need to be surrounded by other LDS families. I understand that most families want their kids to have “good” friends, but living among Mormon families does not mean you’re going to get that. LDS kids and youth have just as many issues as other kids.

  24. JamesM June 18, 2011 at 9:59 pm

    Wish I was not coming to this discussion so late…think there is a lot to pull apart on this topic.

    One potentially simple (simplistic?) explanation is the whole “Mormons are 40 years behind any given social trend” theory. The swing towards walkable urban lifestyles began in the early 90s in some of the major markets, picked up by around 2000 in other markets (such as Portland as noted in OP), and will progress to full maturity for the next 20-50 years depending on several different local factors.

    The “average” Mormon family in the US will likely be fully cued into these demographic realities by roughly 2030. Any of y’all reading this who are already responding to these trends in your individual ways (like me!) can take Uchtdorfian Pride in being Mormon ealy-adopters and in your efforts to ensure that the urban core and inner ring suburbs aren’t “under-salted.”

  25. Nicole I June 20, 2011 at 7:17 pm

    Thanks for stopping by all. I’m sure I’ll revisit this topic over time. It is a professional and personal obsession of mine – and one that I do hope Mormons pick up over time. So, I hope you are right but fear that some of the consumption trends (that, honestly, seem to signify ‘success’ and thus ‘righteousness’) will take a long time to reverse.

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