Mandating a lower growth target or not recognizing the inevitable growth that comes from a successful economy can only result in one thing: extraordinary home-price inflation.

Share story

THE Puget Sound Regional Council’s rejection of five cities’ comprehensive plans [“Regional council warns 5 King County towns they’re growing too fast,” Local News, June 21] on the premise they are accepting too many residents suggests we may need a reality check on how our region manages growth.

When the cities of Carnation, Covington, Duvall, North Bend and Snoqualmie were told they must revise population and jobs targets in their growth plans or run the risk of losing federal transportation dollars over a three-year period, the decision raised important questions about the original purpose of Washington’s Growth Management Act (GMA).

First, these cities are areas already designated for growth. Their urban-growth areas were established through a thoughtful process with broad input from the community. They have also adopted comprehensive plans that are consistent with the GMA and the desired growth strategies of their residents.

Whether growth happens in two years or 10, we know that these cities must grow — perhaps at a rate that is uncomfortable and frustrating for some, but inevitable all the same. The fact that it’s happening at a faster pace suggests we need to adjust our current methods for incorporating growth regionally. Planning for growth, including the construction of roads, bridges, water availability and sufficient sewer capacity, sets our cities up for success. Mandating a lower growth target or not recognizing the inevitable growth that comes from a successful economy can only result in one thing: extraordinary home-price inflation.

Take, for example, June’s median single-family home price of $666,000, a 74 percent increase since 2011. Even severely damaged teardown properties are pushing the asking price envelope [“Seattle home too dangerous to enter sells for $427,000 after ‘insane’ bidding war,” Local News, July 5]. When prices soar this high, questions about sustainability, among other questions, can’t be ignored.

The Vision 2040 Plan, which is Puget Sound Regional Council’s blueprint for growth, was developed 18 years after the GMA became law and under an entirely separate process than was used by cities when they first developed urban-growth boundaries. The plan emphasizes driving growth to our largest cities.

Most of us agree that building denser housing near transit and our largest job centers would yield positive benefits and should be strongly encouraged — yet this is easier said than done. A lot more work is needed to create a regulatory environment that would accommodate the growth demands facing our region. People just can’t afford to live near where they work, and there is an insufficient housing supply in those job centers.

Compounding this problem is the fact that, historically, our larger cities have shied away from zoning changes to increase residential density. In Seattle, for example, the city is just now considering modest zoning modifications to its single-family neighborhoods. However, the proposed changes are limited and haven’t fully accounted for the housing crunch that we are facing. By significantly boosting housing supply in this way, large cities would keep pace with the job growth they are currently experiencing.

Concurrently, our regional planning efforts ignore the fact that the market still demands additional construction of a variety of housing types, from dense mixed-use developments to single-family homes. While everyone can and should support urban density, without urban housing options that offer even a second bedroom at an affordable price point, the typical family has no choice but to seek out alternatives.

The homes being built in these smaller cities are generally much more affordable than similar housing in larger cities and job centers. Despite the fact that some cities, including Seattle, say they have capacity to add housing, we are running out of land in urban-core cities to meet demand. Forcing smaller cities to lower their growth targets is the last thing we should be doing to ease our region’s housing-affordability crunch.

Ultimately, there is a point where a growth plan must be aligned with market realities. Rigid adherence to growth targets at a time when we are experiencing a dearth in land supply and far-greater-than-expected population growth is simply irresponsible, bringing to mind the fable of the ostrich with his head in the sand.

The dialogue between the Puget Sound Regional Council and these small King County cities raises many questions about our region’s growth-management planning. Are we planning realistically for growth? How accurate are our assumptions about the distribution of that growth among our various cities? Do we have a realistic assessment of lot supply for new homes in the region?

In the absence of a regulatory environment that makes constructing multifamily housing more feasible, particularly entry-level condominiums, how realistic are plans that focus heavily on increased density in only our largest cities? What responsibility should each city assume in this discussion? Just as some are growing quickly, other cities are taking less growth than they should, tilting the balance the other way (with some cities taking as little as one housing unit per acre in some zones). Is the GMA working as originally intended, and how does Vision 2040 fit within the Puget Sound region’s overall plan for growth?

Given the frustration many are feeling about the pace and type of growth occurring, one cannot help but wonder if, after 25 years, it’s time to re-examine the way in which our region plans for growth if we hope to attain affordability throughout the Puget Sound region.