Housing density: coming soon to your small town?

townhouses
Buyers are competing for too few homes – and while many factors may be contributing to the inventory shortage in the real estate market, planners should have a vision for strategic density. Photo: City of Sammamish

The pressure on the Central Puget Sound housing market is as intense as it may have ever been. Driven by a hot employment market for higher-earning jobs, a new wave of migration into the area is smashing against a shortage of available housing.  Prices have only one way to go: up.

The one-two punch of a severe shortage of housing units and a large and growing population of new residents with money to spend is creating a gap in the market of those seeking housing that spells trouble for the region: for those whose incomes are not rising quickly or who are struggling just to hang on to the lower rungs of the economic ladder, the region is becoming unaffordable.

The most populous region of Washington state – the Central Puget Sound – presents topographical constraints that won’t ever be mitigated by manmade workarounds.  Mountains, steep foothills, lakes and the expanse of the Puget Sound are as permanent as earthly things can ever be.  Within the space remaining, buyers are competing for too few homes – many factors may be contributing to the inventory shortage in the real estate market, but the simplest one that regional planners can tackle is to lean in to a vision that includes strategic density.

Thriving economies require economic diversity – workers with differing skills and talents performing a wide variety of tasks.  We need coders and engineers just as much as we need grocery clerks, line cooks, teachers and janitors.  But if the most basic cost of living – housing – can’t be supported by the wages those occupations offer, well, that’s how a regional economy shifts from becoming slightly expensive to unaffordable on scale with major metropolitan centers.

This process is already underway.  Workers who are commuting to what, until recently, were considered low- or middle-income jobs in Seattle are making some very difficult compromises.  Although young, unattached workers can squeeze into $1,000-per-month 200 square-foot studio to be close to a low- or middle-rung job, for families acquiring lower-cost housing the choice comes bundled with longer commute times.  More time on the road means an increased reliance on expensive daycare and less time available for family activities.  Most of these families will manage to be successful, but the pressures of more parental absence over an entire population tend to create real costs.

Where these harsh compromises are the result of pure supply and demand, we should allow the market to find its own balance, but there is the other matter of how government policies work to inflate the cost of housing.  It has been 10 years since a University of Washington study found that as much of $200,000 of the price of a Seattle home at that time was due to rules and regs.  At that time, the median Seattle home price had peaked out in 2006 at around $450,000.  As of today, Zillow.com lists a median home price of $764,700.  I will just leave that there for you, the reader, to think about.

Can we develop a plan to reduce some of the pressure on housing prices and thereby make some of those choices less punishing?  Certainly, but it will require managing increased density at the local level first to avoid broad regional decisions that, if history is our guide, may not work out well for local communities.

The transition won’t be easy, but the communities spread across the Central Puget Sound need to adjust to a reality that is fast approaching: increased density is coming.  To retain some control over how density manifests on Main Streets and in less dense areas, communities should begin to work diligently now before regional authorities consolidate political power and ram forward a plan that may bind local planners’ hands even more than the scornful Growth Management Act.

But the shattering of taboos in areas where one-unit-per-acre density still reigns is inevitable; it’s only a question of whether those unthinkable changes will be made by choice or whether they will be compelled by a higher jurisdiction.  The most direct impact that governments can have on the housing affordability crisis will be in innovating supply side solutions, because land is a scarce asset, and we need to make smarter use of what’s available.

Solving the puzzle of how to set limits on developers in ways that preserve green space, don’t overtax available resources and still incentivize structured density that can ease this blister inside the housing market will not be easy.  The Central Puget Sound should remain a vibrant and diverse a region, rather than a one-way economic elevator to the penthouse floor. To achieve that, local planners need to work on this now, their way, or risk having the job taken away from them.

Bryan Myrick is a native Washingtonian who has written about state, local and national politics since 2008, and has worked as a consultant on a number of high-profile ballot measure and candidate campaigns. He graduated from the University of Washington with majors in Political Science and Communications.

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