Do we have enough land for all the people moving to Washington state? | KUOW News and Information

Do we have enough land for all the people moving to Washington state?

Feb 25, 2017

Do we have enough land for all the people moving to Washington state? There’s a bill working its way through Olympia that would change how planners would answer that question. It’s backed by builders and realtors.

To understand the bill, you have to go back to the the Growth Management Act of 1990. That law requires us to plan for growth. Here’s how we do it: We look out, 20 years into the future, and estimate how many people are going to move here. And then – we have to find room for them to live.

Planners drew a red line around the greater Seattle metro area. Inside that line, where all the cities are, that’s where we’re going to pack in most of the people moving here. Outside the line – that’s farmland and forest, and we’re going to discourage growth there.

Every once in a while, planners do a calculation, to make sure we still have enough land inside the urban growth boundary to fit everybody. And they come up with a number, called the "buildable lands" number.

For a long time, realtors and builders have not liked how we calculate the buildable lands number. They say an improper calculation of that number leads to a housing market with insufficient supply. As evidence, they cite escalating home prices.

Pam McCain is a realtor based in Covington and Black Diamond. She says the last several listings she's offered have had five offers each.

"What’s disappointing is there’s only one winner in that scenario," she said. "And four other people have to go off and find something else to buy. And we just do not have enough supply."

That's why realtors and builders want to change how we do that calculation.* After the change, we’d be more likely to conclude that we don’t have enough land for all the people coming here.

A new housing development in Marysville, Washington
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

That conclusion has consequences. Because if we don’t have enough "buildable land," by law, we have to find it somewhere.

There are two ways to find more land.  You can make it out of thin air, by letting cities build more densely (buildings may be taller, or may crowd together more tightly). That method tends to upset city dwellers who don't like to live in the shadows of their neighbors. Or you can find that land by moving the urban growth boundary farther out and opening up farmland and forests to development, which critics call "urban sprawl." 

Realtors and developers win either way. Which method of increasing buildable lands they prefer tends to depend on where they're located: in the cities or on the perimeter of the urban growth boundary.

Dave Andersen, with the state's Department of Commerce, says the realtors' proposed method of calculating the amount of buildable lands is too cynical, because when land gets tight — then more land tends to open up for development. 

Andersen offered as an example an old, one-story commercial building with a failing roof. In one town, that property might not get redeveloped. In Seattle, a developer would knock that building over in a second, replacing it with a mixed-use apartment building.

In other words, the discomfort of rising prices is the very thing that opens up new capacity. 

"There’s lots of properties where you’re seeing a crane today, that, back when the plans were first adopted, no one would have considered that that would occur," Andersen said. 

Senate Bill 5254 also increases funding for subsidized affordable housing. The bill is in a senate committee now and could still going through a lot of changes.

*Technically, the bill would change what's called a "market factor," which is then applied to the buildable lands number. The market factor is basically a measure of how aggressive developers will get in hot real estate markets.