Fixing Puget Sound region’s growing pains

Fixing Puget Sound region’s growing pains
The state Growth Management Policy Board is looking at potential changes to the Puget Sound Regional Council’s VISION 2050 plan to improve housing affordability, as residents are increasingly moving further away from employment centers in Seattle. Photo: Puget Sound Regional Council

It’s no secret that the Puget Sound region has a housing and traffic problem, but some local and regional lawmakers say regional policy for managing it may need some fine-tuning to help alleviate housing challenges.

The problems were highlighted during a July 5 meeting of the state Growth Management Policy Board (GMPB), which includes members of the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC).

VISION 2050 is the PSRC’s growth strategy for incorporating over a million new residents that are expected to arrive in the next 22 years. However, already the region is experiencing historic growth, housing prices and traffic congestion. The city of Seattle is the fastest-growing city in the nation and the metro area spent more than 19 weeks atop the list of the nation’s fastest housing price increases.

Meanwhile, in February, Kirkland-based INRIX reported in its Global Traffic Scorecard that “Commuters around Everett, Washington spent more time stuck in traffic than anyone else, with a congestion rate of 28 percent on highways in and out of the city.”

“We have a pretty significant regional housing and jobs balance issue,” Pierce County Councilmember Derek Young said at the July 5 meeting. “The market can drive a lot of growth into one area, but also (so can) our policies trying to get the jobs where people want to live.”

The rising home prices have led to an increased percentage of residents spending more than half their income on housing. According PSRC data, the median home price in the region has jumped from $267,000 in 2011 to nearly $500,000. Average monthly rent has also increased from $1320 to $1900. Although median household incomes have also gone up, a significant discrepancy remains among the counties.

A June 28 PSRC memo states that this: “threatens the social fabric of local communities, and presents a challenge to the region’s economic development.” A recent PSRC opinion survey found that both the cost of living and housing affordability were a greater concern than traffic congestion.

Young added that current PSRC policy has partly driven job growth into certain cities and “put the housing largely in other areas. Folks (are) clearly being driven for economic reasons to the furthest reach of our region. I think we have to figure out a way to serve those folks.”

Seattle’s disproportionate share of the region’s employment is reflected in figures from PSRC showing that between 2016 and 2017, the metro area gained 51,700 of the 57,900 new jobs created.

Bremerton Mayor Greg Wheeler said that the housing market is forcing people into areas like Mason County, but they’re still commuting to Seattle for work. While Port Orchard Mayor Rob Putaansuu views it as an opportunity to revitalize their downtowns by serving as bedroom communities for Seattle commuters taking the ferry, Wheeler said there are downsides.

“There are obviously fantastic folks moving in, and they’re doing it for economic reasons,” he added. “This is a big concern, because (other) folks are either being displaced or in danger of being displaced. Folks are running out of options in our entire region. I don’t think we can out-build this issue where we have 1.8 million people coming into the region over the next 30 years, and we are already built out in so many centers.”

What makes many Seattle workers willing to endure I-405 and I-5 traffic by living in areas a certain distance away are the massive financial incentives. According to a recent Zillow study shared during the July 5 meeting, increasing one’s commute from 35 minutes to an hour could result in $1600 monthly savings. However, that savings amount was lower for longer commute times.

Port of Seattle Commissioner Peter Steinbrueck argued that “you can’t build fast enough in a growth economy when employment is expanding.”

While he advocates ways to increase income levels to make housing more affordable, County Manager Mike Pattison with the Master Builders Association for King and Snohomish Counties told Lens a more integrated regional land-use strategy can help increase the supply.

“There are jurisdictions in the region that literally allow one unit per acre zoning,” he said. “If the hottest growth areas are an hour and a half drive away from jobs centers, that tells me we have too many restrictions on land use policy in the urban areas. Everybody needs to be doing their fair share. Frankly I think Seattle is doing a good job; they have a way to go, but other jurisdictions have much further to go.”

He added: “We have to start holding the one-unit-per-acre jurisdictions’ feet to the fire and say: ‘It’s time to step up.’ Societally, we have to make a decision and follow through on it. Which do you want – sprawl or density? You can’t have it both ways.”


  1. “Port of Seattle Commissioner Peter Steinbrueck argued that “you can’t build fast enough in a growth economy when employment is expanding.” I have no idea what this man’s work experience is but I doubt what he says is true. The simple reply is “Yes you can.”


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