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Apocalypse: The solution to high housing costs?


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 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.


PHOTOS: Olympia, Earth Images


4 Comments on Apocalypse: The solution to high housing costs?

  1. The state, and indeed Thurston County, can influence future population. One tactic is making sure that growth pays for growth. If development fees recovered costs, on the order of $80,000 per new single-family home, more people who work in Pierce and King County would pay the cost premium to live there, rather than commute from here. We would still need to provide enough land zoned for development to meet the OFM “low” forecast, to comply with the GMA, but it is less likely that it would all be procured in a (higher cost) market. If the entire Northwest did that, then population and economic expansion might slow down. Perhaps there would be a hi-tech boom in places like Utah and Idaho, that welcome growth.

    • Jim, let’s pretend that your idea was implemented statewide. Are you suggesting that this would “cool” the market enough that housing costs leveled off, particularly near the low end? In other words, what’s the elevator speech to millennials?

  2. I certainly hope that some older folks are working on housing cost topics and that they have knowledge and skills to help make things better. Perhaps they don’t subscribe on envirotalk. The discussions on envirotalk, in my opinion, does not necessarily reflect the full spectrum of what people care about or what they are working on.
    The list of important issues that I am NOT working on is very long. It is not that I ‘don’t care’ about the housing cost situation. I am working on topics where I have knowledge and skills and I feel like I can make headway because of that. For example, transportation is the area where I spend my time and it can be a large part a household budget. If people have a transportation system that supports walking and cycling, their overall budget is eased by not owning a car. I’m working toward a transportation system that offers people the healthy option to walk, cycle, and use transit for their daily transportation.

  3. Steve, I just drove from Seattle’s Central District to Renton along 23rd, then Rainier Avenue. What was working-class single family housing- and the hub of the African American community, say between Madison and Jackson, is now mixed use apartment buildings with shops providing luxury goods and fine dining. Last year, Vulcan paid $30 million for a strip mall at 23rd and Jackson.

    The question for me on Council is what housing do we prioritize and incentivise with City policies? Do we imagine Olympia primarily as a piece of land divided into private holdings with potential for generating wealth, do we imagine Olympia as a community of residents, or is there some middle ground? Housing affordability horror stories are not only coming from millenials. Both mid-career and elder folks have approached me this week as they unsuccessfully seek new housing in Olympia. Our approaches to the housing affordability crisis must find a better balance between the expectation that land will appreciate and generate wealth with some measure of loyalty and responsibility to the people who call Olympia home.

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