In the past decade — and for the first time — a majority of impoverished communities in our country are in suburban areas. This dramatic change demands we rethink the way our society and our government serve people.

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THE cost of housing is arguably the biggest issue facing our region. Too many people are being priced out of Seattle, driving farther from the jobs that pay the bills to homes they can afford.

But for all the rhetoric, the true nature of the challenge is being missed.

While many people highlight housing costs in Seattle, far fewer focus on the fact that poverty in King County is now largely a suburban challenge, not an urban one. We as a region need to retool our systems to meet our working poor people and seniors on a fixed income where they are, in suburbs like Tukwila, where I live.

Combating suburban poverty

A discussion on strategies to recognize, respond to and address poverty in the suburbs, sponsored by King County Green Tools, the Congress for the New Urbanism and the Bullitt Foundation, will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 2, at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; free (

Today, more than two-thirds of all people at or below the federal poverty level in King County live in the suburbs, many concentrated in South King County. This same dynamic is reshaping the face of poverty across the nation.

Few things happen by accident. When it comes to housing, jobs, education, transportation and human services, public and financial policies drive predictable outcomes.

As a fourth-generation Washingtonian, Seattleite and student of local history, consider this well-documented example: For the majority of our history, “redlining” and other protective covenants limited where people of color, and Jewish and immigrant communities, could settle, which is why the Central Area neighborhood became home to African Americans in Seattle.

Today, policies dictating where transit goes (and doesn’t), which pieces of land can house many people (and which can only house a few), and where social services are located determine to a great degree how well our region works for people of all income levels. Clearly there is an opportunity for regional collaboration to make sure impoverished communities are better served than they currently are.

As the cost of housing increases in cities, driven by constrained supply and unbounded demand, lower-income people are being forced into the suburbs. Known as the “suburbanization of poverty,” this trend increased dramatically from 2000 to 2011. In fact, out of the top 100 metropolitan regions in the U.S., the greater Puget Sound area is ranked 23rd fastest for growth of suburban poverty, according to research by the Brookings Institution.

In the past decade — and for the first time — a majority of impoverished communities in our country are in suburban areas. This is a dramatic change, and one that demands we rethink the way our society and our government serves people.

Because poverty is still relatively new to the suburbs, it is far more common for suburban poverty to be tied to limited transportation choice, educational inequities and poor access to supporting services. Even more critically, the social capital fostered in institutions such as churches is often frayed as people disperse into far-flung suburbs.

The challenges are obviously big, requiring our whole region to work together.

But there is one big opportunity, based on a commitment we have already made. Over the next 20 years, we will be significantly investing in our transit system, Sound Transit 3. Already, new light-rail lines are being built and transit-oriented developments are under consideration in Tukwila, Des Moines, Shoreline, Northgate and Eastgate.

These are areas with pockets of poverty where people could benefit from access to better transit. It just makes sense to do everything possible to incentivize mixed-use and affordable housing around transit stations, along with access to quality public education, community centers and retail, especially grocery stores.

In Seattle as well as South King County, there is much work needed to address housing affordability, so people can stay in their homes and communities, and new residents can afford to raise their families.

We also need to let go of the outdated notion that poverty is an urban issue. Today, it is decidedly suburban. The first step in tackling the challenges of suburban poverty involves acknowledging it exists, then rolling up our sleeves to find new ways of empowering impoverished communities where they live, in the suburbs.

Shared responsibility generates shared prosperity.