Once the heat wave breaks, we can get back to our favorite regional topics for griping — the cost of housing and the lack of solutions for improving affordability.
Pierce County long has acted as something of a relief valve for the top-of-the-cycle moments of outrageous home prices in Seattle, the Eastside and other parts of King County, as we were reminded in a story this past week in The News Tribune.
But with unaffordability becoming a permanent condition rather than a cyclical phenomenon, the demand for houses is pushing into rural Pierce County, as the story also noted.
Adding supply is the normal market reaction to surging demand, but the demand is so strong that it threatens to swamp whatever affordability is to be had in the South Sound.
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Because people are chasing homes they can afford ever farther out, that demand is contributing to another problem about which we happily spend hours complaining — traffic congestion.
Solutions are few, unwieldy to implement and carry no promise of rectifying the problem. You can build out to and beyond the horizon, and that’s what metropolitan areas with lots of developable land do. That doesn’t do much for the traffic problem, and it sets those areas up for nasty shocks should their economies hit a bump, as they often do. In our region, geography and topography are natural limitations on that approach.
Another approach, and one highly favored at the moment by public officials, is the “pack ‘em in and stack ‘em high” model of planning. That has appeal to certain types of urban dwellers, but not so much for families that, despite concerted efforts to discourage them, still favor a detached single-family home with a patch of grass on which to put a swing set. At least for this region, the fervor for mid- and high-rise apartment buildings isn’t providing much relief on the affordability front.
Then there’s the thought that the way to make houses more affordable is not just to build more of them but to reduce the cost of building them. The modern American suburban housing development was one attempt at cost control. Buy a big patch of land, buy building materials in bulk, get the streets and utilities in place from the start, provide a limited set of designs and options so as to speed construction and have building crews with specialized tasks that can move quickly from one house to the next. It’s an approach that carried the United States through the post-World-War-II surge in housing demand; the homes that approach produced are what housed much of the Baby Boomer generation.
Through the years people have been trying to find ways to cut the costs and increase the efficiency of home construction. Modular homes, manufactured housing (mobile homes or trailers), pre-fabricated components like roof trusses, home kits, all have been aimed at applying factory-style production methods to residential construction. They weren’t intended just for the lower end of the price spectrum. Some modular home builders target higher-end niches, such as vacation homes.
One such approach was on display at the Puyallup fairgrounds last weekend, in the form of The Great American Tiny House Show. The term “tiny house” has multiple meanings at the moment. It’s been used to describe the housing built for the homeless in places like Seattle. Those structures have been derided as little more than glorified garden sheds for their lack of basics like running water.
The tiny homes on display in Puyallup weren’t those tiny homes. The tiny homes — most of them from Northwest manufacturers — are packed with amenities and come in designs ranging from rustic cabin to ultra modern. Many are built on trailer platforms and licensed as recreational vehicles. They’re not inexpensive. One 192-square-foot home (with an 80-square-foot loft) shown by Seattle Tiny Homes lists for $85,900, and that’s not including the cost of where to park it.
They’re often marketed as vacation or second homes. But tiny-home advocates say these micro dwellings hold great appeal to those who, according to a narrative from another exhibitor, International Housing Concepts, “did not want to be tied down to a large mortgage, or simply couldn’t afford a larger dwelling or land to put a home on.” Tiny houses, the company adds, can be used to house the homeless, for disaster relief, construction and oilfield work camps, event housing, campgrounds, cabin rentals and accessory dwelling units and backyard guest houses.
“The new, innovative tiny-house movement is fast becoming the solution to a variety of housing needs,” IHC promises.
There are issues of land cost, zoning regulations and the need for developers to maximize the return on expensive property, and the appeal of tiny homes to large families will be limited. Nonetheless, the idea has enough theoretical attractiveness that someone might try some tiny houses on an in-fill project, along the lines of the old bungalow courts.
The tiny-house movement may well prove to be no more than a niche approach with minimal impact on affordability. But maybe an accumulation of small niche techniques will provide some options that are both affordable and attractive.
We’re rapidly learning that there is no broad and effective method of keeping a lid on home prices — short of throttling demand by trashing the economy and destroying jobs, that is. And we as a nation tried that one not long ago.
Anyone up for a repeat?