Finding the Right Job-Housing Balance for Tacoma

Tacoma needs to fix a fundamental spatial mismatch that exists between the places people work, and the places they call home by focusing on job-housing balance. That's what Ali Modarres, Director of Urban Studies at UWT suggests in a recently published academic article.

It's a little dense, but well-worth the read, if for no other reason than to take a look at Tacoma's housing, employment, and economic development situation in terms of statistics and reason, rather than emotion and aspiration.

Modarres' premise seems fairly simple: economic development efforts should focus on bringing well-paying jobs to town, and housing policy should support the construction of housing that is affordable to the incomes currently earned here.

Right now Tacoma is marginally more affordable than Seattle, but income levels are not keeping pace as housing prices continue to rise, driven at least in part by Seattle workers wiling to commute in exchange for more affordable housing.

Tacomans, on the other hand, with a median family income $20,000 less than Seattle, may find it difficult to keep up.

Tacoma needs to understand its place in this regional dynamic, and make a conscious choice, as Modarres lays it out: either we accept a role as bedroom community and second city to Seattle, or we go the other way, seeing Tacoma as its own urban center.

If we choose the second option, he says, a strong coordination between housing and economic development will be necessary to reduce the mismatch between housing and employment. To restore the job-housing balance necessary to make living in Tacoma affordable for Tacomans into the future, housing must be built to accomodate the reality of median income levels, and economic development should focus on bringing in jobs that raise that median.

Finding this balance will take coordination, focus, and carefully considered decision-making. 

We heard a lot about affordable housing and displacement in recent conversations surrounding the Hilltop Subarea Plan, and the word gentrification gets thrown around from time-to-time, but conversations about housing are seldom as pragmatic as this. 

At last week's City Council meeting Councilmember Walker made reference to including considerations of affordable housing and prevention of displacement in not only the Hilltop Subarea Plan, but the broader citywide planning documents, including the Comprehensive Plan and upcoming citywide visioning conversations. If that's true, we may get a chance to hear about some of Modarres' ideas sooner than we thought. We hope so. What do you think? 

Read Modarres' article for yourself, complete with plenty of numbers and charts, from New Geography. Do you buy his argument? If we go with the premise, can Tacoma coordinate housing and economic development efforts to achieve a balance?

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Erik BRegistered

I certainly agree that Tacoma needs economic development.  That is an incredible understatement.

As for housing, Tacoma’s main problem is lack of any significant economic demand.  Seattle has dozens of cranes building thousands of housing units. 

Meanwhile, Tacoma has almost no new housing being built other than a few waterfront properties and publicly subsidized housing.  Population growth is stagnant. Hundreds of empty land parcels in Tacoma sit vacant with no developer in site with any plans for them.  Many of them having buildings on them at one time.

Tacoma has already designate 17 mixed use centers for growth.  New buildings will (hopefully) be built organically as residents desire and demand. The last thing it needs is yet another layer of government regulations making it even more difficult for anything to be rebuilt in the city.

May 21, 2014 at 11:49 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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Absolutely 100% correct.  What is more is that in a City that demonstrably cannot coordinate infrastructure maintenance and preservation and obviously lacks the intellectual firepower to toast a marshmallow - trusting them with a task like the professor lays out to them is a recipe for disaster.

May 21, 2014 at 1:14 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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Businesses haven’t located in Tacoma because it’s not nearly as pretty, interesting, or sustainable as Seattle.  Why pay almost as much in Tacoma when you can locate in Seattle and have a beautiful view of Elliott Bay outside your window?  Tacoma overlooks the port.

Is it no coincidence that Tacoma’s boom (1873-1910) lasted until about the time the port went from a view of sailing ships docking in beautiful tide flats to an industrial view of spewing stench and tilt-up buildings?

Hell, the land between the Puyallup River and the Foss Waterway is better off made into an inner bay (Harbor) so all of downtown has a water view… then let’s watch the downtown real estate market flourish.  Mr. Bigshot and his giant company might want a crack at an office in Tacoma then.

May 21, 2014 at 3:18 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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I agree!  And all freeway commuters see is the port and a big white dome.  There is only one or two visible spots where the Downtown skyline can be seen and you have to turn your head.  Downtown Tacoma never got a freeway running through it which hasn’t helped as well.  I truly wish Tacoma would flourish and be capable of a beautiful future.

May 28, 2014 at 7:35 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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“Right now Tacoma is marginally more affordable than Seattle”...

Marginally??  What numbers are you referring to?  It’s more like double the price.

Seattle median home price (not including King County) is around $450,000.  Tacoma median home price (not including Pierce) is only about $180,000


May 21, 2014 at 4:56 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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I’d have to agree to this point.  While Seattle-ites are debating “a-pod-ments” our real estate market is at least within reason.  People are buying meth houses for 330k in Seattle and I believe the bubble will soon burst.  The quality of life in Tacoma is so much cheaper and if the Eastside was able to differentiate itself and prosper we should be able to as well.

May 22, 2014 at 9:25 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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Elaborate zoning plans are very nice. But to have a strong urban environment here, we need to attract strong businesses and be able to keep them.  Right now I’m seeing new businesses popping up, but they’re of the yoga, naturopathic, and marijuana dispensaries type.

May 21, 2014 at 5:47 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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