[BY S. SALMI]
A Sightline Institute panel discussion on affordable urban growth elicited a typical response on our Envirotalk listserv. One commentator quipped that the term “affordable city” sounded like an oxymoron similar to “wilderness management.”
The commentator went on to argue that a major decline in population is the best road to affordable housing as well as a revitalized democracy.
That logic chain makes sense except for one factor: Washington’s population is expected to significantly increase over the next few decades. The Office of Financial Management projects that by 2040 the state’s population will grow almost 18 percent — from 7.5 million to 9.1 million.
This would translate into roughly commensurate growth for urban Puget Sound counties such as King and Thurston. Below are OFM projections made in 2012 that include low, medium and high scenarios. These projections are important because they are used to implement the state’s Growth Management Act.
Some environmental activists have argued that OFM’s projections are too high. Others have gone as far as to insist that environmental problems such as climate change could become so disruptive that the population will decline.
This is possible. However, it’s also true that every generation seems to have its prophets of doom. For example, back in the late-70s The Mother Earth News argued that we all needed to go back to the land and live a simple life because the economy was about to collapse. The world did experience a punishing recession in the early-80s but urban, industrial society is still with us.
My point is not to dismiss the very real environmental challenges we face. However, even if collapse were right around the corner, that’s not a politically viable argument right now. So how do environmentalists respond to affordable housing policy ideas from the likes of Daniel Hertz, one of Sightline’s panelists? He has argued for a “nuanced” approach that both increases market-rate supply while also devoting substantially more resources to housing assistance.
Housing affordability does not appear to be an important issue to older environmentalists. Meanwhile, millennials are struggling with housing costs due to the one-two punch of escalating prices combined with high student-loan debt.
Washington is a particularly tough place to become a first-time homeowner. Only 3.85 percent of millennials own a home, according to Bankrate.com. This puts us at 37 out of 50 states. That’s partly because we rank 47 out of 50 states in housing affordability — only above Hawaii, California, Oregon and Colorado.
Thurston County has a somewhat better situation than the Seattle-Tacoma region, but the cost of owning a new home is still quite high here. A house payment eats up 42 percent of the county’s median income of almost $50,000 if you own a median dwelling of $249,900, according to The News Tribune.
The bottom line is that housing affordability has reached a crisis stage, particularly for young people. Could it be that they have not flocked to local environmental groups partly because the issues which matter most to them have not been addressed . . . in ways that make sense to them?
Environmentalists who put population decline at the center of their policy agenda are essentially telling young people that they shouldn’t expect to find affordable housing until the four horsemen show up. Test out that idea on the next millennial you meet and let us know how the conversation goes.
ALL OUR SOURCES:
- Bell, Claes; 2017. “We pick the toughest and easiest states for first-time homebuyers.” Bankrate.com. Posted Feb. 28; accessed Aug. 27.
- Hertz, Daniel; 2016. “Finding nuance in the housing supply arguments.” City Observatory. Posted March 3; accessed Aug. 27, 2017.
- Martin, Kate; 2017. “It’s not only Seattle: Can you afford region’s housing market? The News Tribune. Posted April 5; accessed Aug. 27.
- Office of Financial Management; 2012. 2012 Projections: County Growth Management Population Projections by Age and Sex: 2010-2040. Accessed Aug. 27, 2017.
- ——; 2016. State of Washington Forecast of the State Population: November 2016 Forecast. Accessed Aug. 27, 2017.
- Wikipedia; 2017. “Back-to-the-land movement.” Last modified Aug. 25; accessed Aug. 27.
- ——; 2017. “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” Last modified Aug. 20; accessed Aug. 27.
PHOTOS: Olympia, Earth Images