Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: You’ll like Tacoma, and hopefully one day you’ll work here, too

The story took over my Twitter and Facebook feeds Monday like Amazonians have taken over South Lake Union in Seattle.

“New housing trend has Seattleites moving to Tacoma,” blared the headline of a KIRO-TV story. The breaking news focused on a “micro-trend” of Seattle folks moving to T-Town to buy affordable homes.


Naturally, I was left awestruck. It was the first I’d ever heard of such a phenomenon.

In the business, that’s what they call sarcastic humor. But the reaction on social media was largely celebratory. Tacomans quickly plastered the story online, pouncing on an opportunity to trumpet Tacoma’s growth and overall awesomeness.

“See, world! Tacoma’s a great place to live! EVEN PEOPLE FROM SEATTLE ARE MOVING HERE!”

That’s to be expected. Tacoma loves few things more than a chance to launch a PR offensive against our maligned reputation and long, tortured history of unfortunate news headlines and aromas.

The KIRO story was also fantastic promotional material for real estate agent Marguerite Giguere. Apparently, business is good. As she told KIRO, “We’re all at the office just like hair on fire. Nobody’s taking days off. We’re selling houses all the time.”

Geez. That sounds dangerous.

Again, humor.

For Tacoma, however, perhaps there is some real danger in all this. Giguere tells me the clients she works with are “not tech zillionaire yuppie jerks,” and instead “nice people, buying $150,000 homes with down payment assistance.” Still, the cost of living in Seattle surely makes, and will continue to make, Tacoma an appealing landing spot for Seattleites of all types. That trend, especially if it gains steam, will have implications for our city.

So who stands to benefit? And who stands to lose?

As Pacific Lutheran University economics professor Neal Johnson tells me, those are the big questions. There’s no doubt higher income Seattleites moving to Tacoma, and bringing their skills with them, has the potential to alter the shape of our local economy. Property values will rise from an increased demand for homes — which will benefit current home owners and our tax base — and businesses catering to a wealthier, higher-spending demographic will have an opportunity to open and flourish.

But for the lower-income, often lower-skilled labor force that already calls Tacoma home, Johnson says the news may not be so rosy. “To some extent, it’s not just adding population,” he says. “It’s displacing the current population.”

While Johnson doesn’t foresee low-income Tacomans being completely displaced, he does see the potential for these residents to be increasingly “pushed to the margins.” In other words, Johnson envisions the possibility of a future with an even more pronounced economic divide in Tacoma, with the North End, West End and eventually even Hilltop becoming more affluent, and areas like South Tacoma and the East Side acting even more like a refuge for those with low incomes.

“It’s a complicated thing,” Johnson says. “If you’re bringing people in, that can negatively impact those people who are already here. … If you’re working on this from a political perspective, there’s the issue of who your constituency is.”

The question we face: In 20 years, what kind of place do we want Tacoma to be? And who will be living here?

Another dilemma presented by this migration has an answer that, thankfully, most seem to agree on. It won’t be enough for Tacoma’s growth strategy to be based on evolving as a traditional bedroom community.

In the short term, funding Sound Transit 3, and connecting Tacoma to Seattle with light rail is imperative. But while it will take time, the goal can’t just be to lure skilled, commuting Seattleites with cheap housing options. Eventually we need to have jobs to offer them.

“You get enough people here, and rather than doing that commute you might end up with people actually starting businesses here, and tapping into that labor pool that has the skills they need,” Johnson says.

“That’s probably long-term.”

It might be gazing toward the horizon, but it’s a discussion, and planning, that we should all be focused on now.

Sure, the KIRO story that started all this was probably most about a station using anecdotal evidence to tap into the mounting fear and agitation over the cost of living in Seattle.

But for Tacoma, on a much smaller scale, there are lessons about livability and affordability to be taken from the current plight of our well-off neighbor to the north.