Seattle, nation’s fastest growing city, and some bumps in the road ahead: business costs, housing affordability, and rising taxes

The Census Bureau reported last week that Seattle was the nation’s fastest growing city. From the Seattle Times story:

From July 1, 2012 to July 1, 2013, Seattle grew by 2.8 percent — the highest rate among the 50 most-populous U.S. cities. Seattle added nearly 18,000 residents in the one-year period, bringing its population to about 652,000.

The Times notes that the growth is doubtless tied to the city’s strong economy. It not only grew faster than other major metros, it outpaced its suburbs.

As the Brookings Institution reports, this may be the decade of big city growth. But it’s too early to tell.

This initial city growth upsurge could well be attributable to recession’s aftermath and the suburban housing market slowdown. If that were the case, then the  newly reported city growth slowdown and modest exurban gains could  signal that past suburban growth patterns are re-emerging.

Yet city growth levels remain strong by the standards of recent history. Moreover, the cities that are growing most rapidly are located in areas with economies and amenities that are attractive to millennials, graduates and young professionals, who make up agrowing portion of potential movers. So while it is too soon to anoint this the “decade of the city,” the persistence of big city growth is hard to ignore.

Seattle surely fits the model – attractive to millennials and techies. But I’m still convinced costs matter. And Seattle housing affordability remains problematic. So too is city leadership’s willingness to pile on taxes, fees and mandatory wage hikes. The Seattle Times, usually skeptical of new city programs, thinks the proposed universal preschool is a good idea, even as they outline other proposed ballot competition.

Adding another levy to Seattle’s bulging menu of pending requests — including the proposed doubling, to $48 million, of the local parks levy, a $45 million Metro Transit package and the uncounted costs of a $15 minimum wage — creates an unnecessarily strong headwind for the Seattle preschool package.

Creating universal, high-quality preschool is an opportunity for Seattle to walk its talk about progressive values. It deserves a spot at the top of the list.

A new poll shows support for the idea, though Publicola notes the sample was limited to parents and guardians of children in K-3 in Seattle schools and,

the survey didn’t say anything about the price of the proposal, which, at $58 million over four years, would add $3.63 to the average homeowner’s monthly property tax bill. 

Growth can occasionally create a false sense of momentum and complacency. In a good Crosscut piece, Mike Luis contends that Seattle is more pragmatic than its reputation, past and present.

Radicalism takes root among those who have little to lose, and in Seattle there has always been something to lose. The shipyard workers who fomented the general strike had been paid well and had comfortable lives that they wanted to maintain. More recently, younger Boeing workers accepted unappealing contract provisions because they knew what a career in a Boeing factory could do for them.

Seattle is doing well economically and can afford to push the policy envelope a bit. But after an experiment or two, leaders will revert to type and get the city back to the business of the past 163 years: making money and enjoying the scenery.

That would be good for the city, region and state. And it’s clearly a testable hypothesis.