We can’t solve the housing problem without updating the restrictive Growth Management Act

If you rent or own a house in Washington state, and that’s pretty much everyone, you’ve noticed rents and home prices have increased significantly over the last few years. According to the state Office of Financial Management, the median home price since 1995 has quadrupled with Washington. We now have the sixth highest median home price in the United States.

The reason? We have lots of people and not enough housing.

The City of Vancouver has an affordable housing program, named the ‘Affordable Housing Fund’ (AHF) with the goal of reducing the cost of housing for Vancouvers lowest wage earners.

AHF recommendations won’t help the long-term issue of affordable housing and will only give temporary relief. The policies in AHF ultimately will increase taxes on existing homeowners as property developers will want to recoup the additional cost of the subsidy.

More money isn’t the whole story. Washington needs reforms for lasting housing affordability and availability.

The problem isn’t simply that people are moving here for tech jobs. The housing shortage has its roots in a 1990 state law called the Growth Management Act or GMA. That act and other related state policies that have created a lack of housing in all categories.

Back in 1990, Washington lawmakers thought “urban sprawl” that was afflicting the larger cities, such as Los Angeles, was our biggest problem. They decided to restrict buildable land to prevent the building of new neighborhoods in most rural areas.

Initially, as the GMA took effect, housing prices increased only modestly, but as the normal demand for more housing grew after 2012, the restrictions imposed in the early 1990s started to have a significant effect on pricing and availability. The GMA requires population targets for cities, strictly enforced by the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC), that continue to promote increasing densities through the removal of single-family homes and multi-family housing. These growth targets require cities to adsorb more population, through new construction or annexation of the surrounding areas. For cities that are already built out, such as Edmonds, Mukilteo or Shoreline, this is a significant problem. Nearby buildable land remains off limits.

Washington has now reached a point where housing availability is forcing the politicians look at other options, such as middle housing (re-zoning existing neighborhoods to allow high density) and housing voucher subsidy programs (such as House Bill 1628). These efforts, even if they work, are targeted primarily at lower income families and won’t be a significant impact on the overall cost of housing.

None of the solutions in AHF and legislation that is being considered in Olympia this year will solve the real problem. In fact, some are going to make things worse, including the already legendary bad traffic in Puget Sound as they have no provisions for public infrastructure improvements.

Simple adjustments to the Growth Management Act, like modifying the arbitrary growth boundaries and reducing the population density goals set by the Puget Sound Regional Council, would increase available land and the ability for more housing to be built. Pairing this improvement with the streamlining of the permitting process would increase housing availability in short order.

Improvements to the street infrastructure and freeways (another general-purpose lane on I-5 and I-405 would help a lot) need to go along with any new construction projects.

The Growth Management Act has laudable goals but it’s obvious now, 30 years later, that state lawmakers over-reacted and it went too far. If we want to see more affordable housing return to Washington, the GMA has to be updated to meet modern conditions.


  1. I have a better idea Mark; hear me out. Stop building for huge increases in population, and let those who can afford the unaffordable homes buy them and deal with it. The increases by developers, should not be allowed by over 2% for all homes built going forward. The developers will leave and so will the increase in population, which by the way, as we all know causes even more tax increases. STM (Stop the Madness)

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