Thinking About Housing in the Northwest


With one of the most successful economies in the nation, the real estate news in the Pacific Northwest is positive and gives hope for a housing sector recovery, albeit at different rates in different markets. CNNMoney reports that from the third quarter in 2012 to the third quarter in 2013, the median home price in the Seattle-Bellevue and Everett area increased by 13.7%. The forecast for changes from the third quarter in 2013 to the third quarter in 2014 is another 5.2%. Tacoma’s (Pierce County) housing prices did not grow as quickly, with an increase of 9.3% from 2012 to 2013, but it is expected to witness a sharper increase in 2014, with a healthy 8.6% change from the third quarter of 2013 to 2014. 

As rosy as the real estate picture is, we should also remember that in the second quarter of 2013, as housing values began to climb in both markets, median family incomes were already too low compared to median home prices. In Seattle, the ratio of median home prices to median family income was 4.7, and in Tacoma it was 3.6. That made Tacoma a relatively affordable city. However, an expected increase of 8.6% in home values, without a corresponding increase in median family incomes will not do much for its affordability.

Without a major change in its employment structure that might lead to higher incomes for current and future residents of Tacoma, the differential in home prices could make Tacoma a residential destination for Seattle employees finding this city comparatively more affordable. Living half an hour from work, but paying significantly less for housing, is a great incentive, especially for young, single or double income, and childless families. For them, a two-bedroom condo with a view of Commencement Bay may do the job. For Tacoma residents whose median family income is about $20,000 less than their Seattle counterparts, rising home values may prove to be a challenge that cannot be easily overcome without a higher number of well-paying jobs that keep pace with rising home values.

Regional patterns of housing affordability

It is no longer news to anyone that most unaffordable cities rely on their less costly neighbors to house their working populations. The city of Los Angeles relies on the vast sprawl of its own suburbs and the Inland Empire. San Francisco does the same by having people commute from the larger urban region, all the way from the San Joaquin Valley.

The relationship between Seattle and other cities in King and Pierce Counties already follows the same script. Morning commutes into Seattle and afternoon rush hour traffic heading out of Seattle do not require statistics. The numbers are felt by anyone driving during those hours. However, two maps will help paint a vivid picture of the regional urban dynamics created by the unholy triangle of housing market price differentials, economic development patterns, and the resulting spatial mismatch between home and work places. 

Maps for median housing values and commuting patterns in King and Pierce Counties clearly show that a good number of people who work in unaffordable regions of King County (including Seattle) rely on more affordable housing elsewhere. As the map of commuting patterns illustrates, for Pierce County, this starts right at the county border, where housing prices are lower (compared to median household incomes). This has already turned certain portions of Pierce County into bedroom communities, feeding economic growth elsewhere. In other words, job-rich areas are resolving their housing problems by pushing their employed populations to other areas, where home prices are more affordable. However, will the growth of housing demand in areas outside employment centers translate to increased housing values in previously affordable regions and push long-time residents out of the housing market?

To answer this question, we need to engage in a more detailed level of analysis.

Micro-geographies of affordability

In order to get a better sense of housing affordability patterns, we can rely on a simple indicator called median multiples (the ratio of median housing value to median household income). While this measure has its critics, it is easily understandable. The basic premise is that when median housing value exceeds median household income more than three fold, an area becomes unaffordable.

A few years ago, Wendell Cox used this method to identify the least affordable cities in the nation. He used the following table to classify various cities in the U.S.:


Housing Affordability Ratings


Median Multiple

Severely Unaffordable

5.1 & Over

Seriously Unaffordable

4.1 to 5.0

Moderately Unaffordable

3.1 to 4.0


3.0 or Less

Median Multiple: Median House Price divided by Median Household Income


The map of median multiples for King and Pierce Counties reveals a pattern of housing affordability that indicates a looming problem as the housing market recovers. As of Census 2012, almost all Seattle and Bellevue areas were unaffordable, with median multiples exceeding 5. Comparatively speaking, Tacoma has had more affordable housing areas (with more census tracts with median multiples ranging from 3 to 4).  Between Tacoma and Seattle, areas such as Federal Way have more affordable housing for the income levels found there. Tacoma’s North East community, adjacent to Federal Way, has higher housing values matching residents’ income levels. Given the commuting patterns, this region is clearly home to many who work elsewhere, earn better incomes, and spend a smaller portion of it on their homes.

In some areas, where median multiples exceed 5, current residents may have purchased their houses when prices were lower. In other words, at one point in time, the median multiple had a lower value. Under such conditions, residents have accumulated substantial equities, allowing them to sell in a more expensive market. However, the next group of occupants will need substantially higher incomes to afford these houses. With the potential arrival of a sellers’ market, any transition in the composition of homeowners will also coincide with a shift to higher socioeconomic status.  

Given the overall housing affordability patterns, it is clear that with the looming hike in home prices, the last of the semi-affordable housing pockets in the region extending from Seattle to Tacoma could vanish quickly. Clearly, the well-paid employees in King County could choose to live in Pierce County, enjoy the views, but struggle with traffic up and down I-5. They could even benefit from a publicly funded transportation system. But this won’t resolve the growing traffic and the emerging spatial mismatch between housing and employment. At this point the entire urban region from Seattle to Tacoma should focus on job-housing balance, where the quantity and cost of housing are comparable to employment volume and average salaries paid. To be truly ‘green,’ decision makers need to think regionally. Passing housing or employment problems to neighboring cities is not the best approach to sustainability.

As for Tacoma, like any other urban region on the fringes of a major metropolitan area, the city has a few options moving forward. First, it could act as a satellite city and build more houses for people who work in the larger urban region. Second, it could imagine itself as a major urban center with little interest in being a “second city.” In that case, it needs to focus on economic development, bringing more well-paying jobs that are suitable for its current and future residents, and build houses that are affordable for the types of incomes generated in the area. This strategy requires coordination between housing and economic development that reduces the spatial mismatch between housing and employment and improves the job-housing balance. This will help both housing and transportation conditions. That will also keep Tacoma affordable and make it unpretentiously ‘green.’

The National Association of Home Builders ranks Tacoma 103rd for housing affordability on a list of 224 cities. Spokane ranks 62 and Seattle 202 on the same list. Tacoma should aspire to appear on the list of the top 50 most affordable cities by 2020, and be recognized for the quality of life and employment opportunities it offers to current and future residents.

Ali Modarres is the Director of Urban Studies at University of Washington Tacoma.  He is a geographer and landscape architect, specializing in urban planning and policy. He has written extensively about social geography, transportation planning, and urban development issues in American cities.

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