Housing the Rest of Us

The Puget Sound area entices many, given its natural amenities. But there are constraints, notably: Where will the people live? Michael Luis, writing for Crosscut, details the challenges, which are significant.

After 20 years of growth management we still don’t have a very good grip on this question. We know we do not want to sprawl forever, like the big, fast growing cities of the Sunbelt. But we have never come up with a plausible alternative.

Seattle is increasingly home to only the affluent, as housing prices outstrip median household incomes. Those further down the wage ladder must live farther out.

But there is a problem, a very big one. And that is transportation. Once removed from the city, suburbanites confront congestion horrors.

So, back to cities. How do we fit a growing population into urban centers confined by both geography and transportation? Luis suggests three immovable objects to doing so.

  1. Urban Growth Boundary, mandated by the Growth Management Act
  2. resistance to density
  3. lifestyles

Those who live in single-family homes strenuously object to multi-family units in their neighborhoods. Though inhabitants of other countries, as Luis points out, have lived in densely packed built environments for centuries, Americans, in the words of James Kunstler, desire their own “log cabins” in the cities. Luis:

The fact remains that preservation of existing low-density zoning is a primary expectation of local governments, and there is no constituency outside the housing industry pushing for higher densities. The political formula is simple: Most voters already own homes and have no stake in expanding the supply of them.

Young people may start their families in multi-family units, but then seek larger accommodations with yards and fences to raise their children. But unless they can afford to spend upwards of a million dollars or more, they’ll be forced into the cheaper suburbs, necessitating dreaded commutes along the always-congealed freeway corridors.

Luis does not seem optimistic about our collective ability to solve the problem. He concludes:

The problem of providing housing for the next wave of growth is not a planning or economic question, but a political one, and it is a question that the region’s leaders need to get a grip on. Growth management, as carried out at the local level, has had two big successes: preserving the Cascade foothills and creating vibrant urban centers. There is no technical barrier to city and county leaders doing the rest of the job, primarily finding creative ways to house families that don’t involve lengthy commutes.

But before they can do that effectively, the state, which created this political mess in the first place, needs to come back to the table. The GMA needs to be tweaked to acknowledge two important truths. First, planning for population growth and unit count is too abstract; we need a finer grain of planning that considers real people and households and their needs. Second, local governments are hardwired to respond to their current residents, not their future ones, and assuming they will take tough votes on density without strong guidance and incentives is unrealistic.

Ah, politics. Oh, and planning. We Americans are not very good at either.

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