PATTERSON AND NORMAN: Affordable housing is regional problem

While it is difficult to look beyond the current economic crisis, with unemployment hovering near double digits and home foreclosures continuing, this cycle will eventually end, and growth in the Puget Sound region will resume. Estimates indicate that the population along the I-5 corridor will grow by a projected 1.7 million people between now and 2040.

With this level of growth, the region will see more diversity, and, inevitably, more households living below the poverty line. There will be a growing number of households working in low-wage jobs where salaries have increasingly fallen behind the cost of living.

Households with limited incomes must balance many competing needs. They must forgo investments in their future (education, job training and health care) to take care of more immediate needs (car repairs, gasoline, food and housing). Rising housing costs trap households in poverty.

If current trends continue, an ever-increasing portion of our community will be paying more than they can afford for housing. It is critical that we preserve and increase the inventory of quality, affordable housing and at the same time expand geographic choice for low income households across the County.

The supply issue may be obvious, but why geographic choice? Two reasons:

First, there is a growing disconnect between where the poor live and where they work. Take Microsoft for example. The Redmond campus is a tremendous economic engine that generates thousands of jobs, but the workers who wash the windows, serve the food and trim the hedges don’t live in Redmond or Bellevue. They commute from SeaTac or Kent or Renton, many even crossing county lines to get to work. They trade higher housing costs for lengthening commute times, and spend more money on gas and vehicle maintenance. It would be far cheaper, and with better outcomes, to put affordable housing near the jobs.

Second, the absence of housing choice accounts for a growing concentration of poverty in certain areas of the county. History has shown that this form of segregation has a lasting impact on everything from educational achievement to health outcomes.

Currently, more than 23,000 households in South King County are living in poverty. A child in South King County is twice as likely to drop out of high school as one in East King County. This same child is also twice as likely to be overweight as one who lives north of Seattle.

The migration of poverty into the suburbs has created a whole new set of challenges. The delivery of support services to poor families, such as education, job placement and health care, becomes more complicated as they move to lower density, often isolated communities. We need to increase services in these areas, but we must also provide greater housing choice around the region.

King County government and the King County Housing Authority (KCHA) have partnered on a number of initiatives to encourage housing choice. With support from the county, KCHA is redeveloping its major public housing complexes in South King County and shifting affordable housing opportunities to the County’s east and north sub-markets. In a parallel effort, KCHA provides incentive programs that enable households with Federal Section 8 subsidies to rent units in these higher-rent areas.

The long-term solution depends, however, on the acknowledgement that poverty is a regional issue that requires a broad, collective effort. We are already establishing a strong regional approach to transportation issues, land use planning and the economy, but are less prepared for how we will deal with poverty. Solutions to all of these issues must be closely integrated. Affordable housing should be provided along mass transit corridors. Land use policies need to encourage housing availability near job opportunities.

Julia Patterson represents the King County Council’s Fifth District, which includes part of Renton. She can be reached at julia.patterson@kingcounty.gov. Stephen Norman is the executive director of the King County Housing Authority.

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