Population growth, limited new construction and zoning constraints are among the factors contributing to rapidly rising home prices that challenge policymakers to devise solutions.

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If you own a home in the Seattle area, consider yourself lucky.

The area’s rapid population growth is outpacing new-home construction and helping to drive up home prices faster than gains in household income. The run-up threatens to make homes unaffordable to a typical household and challenges policymakers to come up with solutions.

In King County, ground zero for the population explosion, the median price of single-family homes sold this year through November is $479,000, surpassing the previous peak in 2007. Both King and Snohomish counties saw median prices climb about 9 percent over the year.

While home prices rose, rents soared: The fourth quarter’s average rent of $1,460 in King and Snohomish counties was 11 percent higher than a year ago, the fastest climb in nearly a decade, according to market researcher Apartment Insights Washington.

Thousands of new apartments in high-rise luxury towers are skewing the market’s average rent higher, but even older properties’ rents have outpaced inflation.

“That makes it hard for these renters to convert from renters to homeowners even though it would make a lot of sense to buy a home right now if you plan to stay in a home for a few years,” said Svenja Gudell, chief economist at Seattle-based Zillow, the real-estate website.

Improving transit options would alleviate some of the imbalance in home prices and rents, experts say. For example, Sound Transit’s ridership has hit new highs on its commuter rail lines from Everett and Lakewood, where housing is more affordable.

“Because of our woefully inadequate mass-transit infrastructure, it takes a long time to get from A to B,” said Matthew Gardner, chief economist at Windermere Real Estate. “It costs $980 for a two-bedroom apartment in Kent and more than $3,000 for a two-bedroom apartment in Belltown, and they’re 15 miles apart.”

The affordability challenge is not just a local problem. Nationally, it’s a trend that’s not sustainable.

“Whether you’re looking to rent or looking to buy, if you’re in the bottom one-third of the socioeconomic continuum, you’re really challenged to afford to live somewhere,” said Rick Sharga, executive vice president at Auction.com, an online real estate brokerage. “That’s just not a tenable situation for the long term.”

“Not much to buy”

Even if Seattle-area first-time buyers qualify for a mortgage and have a 20 percent down payment, they’re up against the worst shortage of homes for sale in more than a decade.

To appreciate just how tight the housing market is, consider these numbers:

State planners estimate that King, Snohomish and Pierce counties added 60,970 residents as of April 1 this year. Other state data suggest a bigger migration: More than 98,700 people moving from out of state to those three counties were issued driver’s licenses from January through November this year.

Agencies issued permits for an average 7,900 single-family homes a year since 2011 in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties — but the region’s annual population growth was five times that.
Agencies issued permits for an average 7,900 single-family homes a year since 2011 in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties — but the region’s annual population growth was five times that.

Over the same period, agencies issued building permits in the three-county area for just under 23,600 new housing units — and the vast majority of them are apartments.

And the number of existing houses for sale is paltry compared with demand.

“There’s just not much to buy,” said Nela Richardson, chief economist at Seattle-based Redfin, a residential real-estate brokerage.

Desirable homes that come on the market are gone in a blink: In November, the Seattle area was the second-fastest market in the nation for home sales after Denver, with houses spending a median of only 16 days on the market, Richardson said.

“The fact that it’s that fast this late in the year is incredible,” she said. “We haven’t seen the seasonal ebb in demand.”

Economists say they expect the tight inventory to loosen slightly in 2016. With home prices rising, more owners with mortgage debt will have greater equity and be able to sell their homes without a loss.

Moreover, the cost of borrowing money is expected to rise, even as housing economists expect local median home prices to climb between 5 and 7 percent. That combination will cut into demand, especially from some homebuyers on modest budgets.

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The Seattle area’s long-term trajectory is toward substantially less affordability, according to research firm Moody’s Analytics, which tracks household income relative to house prices.

Affordability has been on the wane since the first quarter of 2012, when foreclosures spiked and the region’s jobless rate was around 7 percent.

While houses in the metro area are still relatively affordable by historical standards, Moody’s forecasts that by the end of next year, even with a 20 percent down payment, the typical household won’t have enough income to qualify for a median-priced home.

Because median wages have stagnated, any increase in mortgage payments “is going to make it more difficult for these folks to afford homes,” said Rodney Rancharan, a public-policy professor at the University of Southern California.

Pressure to rethink zoning

The shortage of homes for sale is a national problem, but in Seattle, the problem is magnified.

“You’re a microcosm of the rest of the country, but you’re probably experiencing it on a higher level of severity,” said Auction.com’s Sharga. “With very little land available and little new home building, it begs the question of where people are going to be able to buy a house.”

Excessive zoning rules drive up the cost of producing new housing, especially multifamily units, and exacerbate income inequality, the White House’s top economist said in a recent speech.

Rob Harrison, a local architect who designs multigenerational homes, said Seattle’s single-family zones must be opened up to more diverse housing types and small commercial uses.

According to a city planning document, single-family zones cover more than three-quarters of the land in Seattle designated for residential and mixed-use development.

“The real need is to make it possible for more people to live in what are now single-family zones,” Harrison said. Before Seattle’s current zoning was put in place, “small apartment buildings, corner stores, duplexes, cottage developments and so on were mixed in with single-family houses.”

Redfin’s Richardson said cities can accommodate growth and be inclusive by rethinking their zoning policies, but it doesn’t need to be a choice between high-rises and single-family units.

“Five to six-unit condos would solve Seattle’s density problem,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be a high-rise situation.”

The affordability index for the Seattle metro compares median family income to the median house price and factors in local mortgage rates and other costs.
The affordability index for the Seattle metro compares median family income to the median house price and factors in local mortgage rates and other costs. An index value of 100 indicates a typical household has just enough income to qualify for the median-priced home with a 20 percent down payment.

Last summer, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray proposed to expand the types of housing allowed in the city’s single-family zones upon the recommendation of a 28-member committee.

But Murray withdrew his proposal after fierce opposition from some vocal opponents who feared the proposal would unleash runaway development that would destroy neighborhoods’ character and might not increase the supply of affordable homes.

Some observers say state lawmakers should revisit — especially in King County — the state’s 1990 Growth Management Act, which limited development.

“You can’t just presume that we can accommodate all this growth with people living in high-rises,” said Matthew Gardner, chief economist at Windermere Real Estate, the region’s largest residential brokerage. “We need to at least broach the idea of potentially expanding it beyond the de minimis amount of annexations we’ve seen.”

While government planners say King County has “sufficient capacity” for housing growth, their methodology is flawed because it doesn’t reflect the realities on the ground, said Shannon Affholter, executive director of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties.

For example, outlying unincorporated areas may have land but lack roads and utilities. Lots in attractive areas may not be available for sale or be too expensive to develop.

“If we don’t get a better understanding of what’s buildable or not, we’re going to price people out of this region,” Affholter said.