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How the high cost of homes is reshaping the way we live


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By Stuart Eskenazi

Seattle Times staff reporter

An hourlong discussion about the lack of affordable housing in the Puget Sound area effortlessly segued into conversations about transportation, jobs, schools, human services and the environment.

That's because it is becoming increasingly difficult to talk about the first without realizing its impact on the rest.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who was visiting Seattle on Friday during a congressional recess, convened the roundtable with representatives of housing agencies, business, Sound Transit, the Puget Sound Educational Service District and social-service agencies to see what she can do at the federal level to help people with low and moderate incomes find affordable housing.

"Our region really needs a strong focus on what we're doing here ... to address this crisis we're facing," said Murray, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development.

While acknowledging that federal programs and subsidies are geared mostly toward providing housing for the very poor, Murray said she also was interested in ideas that would help workers obtain homes close to their jobs.

Adrienne Quinn, director of Seattle's Office of Housing, said a recent study by her office reveals that 51 percent of Seattle workers do not live in the city. HOUSEHOLDS EARNING BETWEEN $60,000 AND $100,000 A YEAR ARE THE LEAST LIKELY TO LIVE WITHIN THE CITY LIMITS, she said.

"People are able to buy someplace, but not in the city of Seattle," Quinn said.

Sam Anderson, executive director of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties, said starter houses are going up in Pierce, Kitsap and Skagit counties, but they are no longer financially feasible to build in King County or much of Snohomish County, where land values are sky high.

"We're having a very hard time as an industry giving them [homebuyers] a first bite of that apple," he said.

Anderson's sentiments were echoed by Bryan Wahl, government-affairs director of the Washington Association of Realtors. He said people are buying homes in Olympia or Mount Vernon and commuting to work in Seattle.

"They have to drive to buy," he said.

And that is putting pressure on the area's already stressed-out transportation system. Joni Earl, CEO of Sound Transit, said Sound Transit's Sounder rail line -- one route connects Tacoma and Seattle with stops in Puyallup, Auburn, Kent and Tukwila, and the other connects Everett and Seattle with a stop in Edmonds -- is in many ways a manifestation of the lack of affordable and desirable housing in Seattle for those who work in the city.

"You hear stories on the train, 'I moved out here because I can't afford to live in Seattle' or 'I live out here because I wanted more land,' " Earl said.

The lack of affordable housing in Seattle also affects the migration of poverty, said Stephen Norman, executive director of the King County Housing Authority. He told Murray that poor people who rely on Section 8 vouchers to subsidize what they owe in rents are finding it increasingly difficult to find places they can afford in Seattle or on the Eastside.

"As poverty has moved out into the county, we are concerned about it being concentrated in certain areas," particularly in south King County, he said. Once those pockets of poverty become established, they can take decades to eliminate, he cautioned.

Over the next six months, a group of officials similar to those who participated in Friday's roundtable with Murray will meet to come up with new policies that can help improve access to housing close to jobs for workers of all wage levels. Rita Ryder, president of strategic initiatives for the YWCA of Seattle, King County and Snohomish County, will co-chair the group, which will meet under the umbrella of the Prosperity Partnership, a coalition of more than 200 government, business, labor and community organizations that exists to develop a regional economic strategy.

"We won't be looking at pie-in-the-sky solutions but rather practical answers on what we can get done and start implementing in 2008," Ryder said.

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