In Focus: New housing part of economic vitality

July 26, 2013 

I recently was visiting the Seattle area with a friend of mine, talking about all of our favorite out-of-town places — Trader Joe’s, The Cheesecake Factory and more — that we don’t yet have and all the ones we’re getting or have gotten in the Tri-Cities — Five Guys Burgers and Fries, Jimmy John’s and more.

Awhile later, she pointed to one of the home-covered hills in Seattle and said, “But I don’t want the Tri-Cities to look like that. I love open space and want to keep them. I think they should stop building in the open space areas.”

I hear and read sentiments like this all the time. People don’t want new development to block their view or take away any more orchards. They want more density in housing — high-rises and condos. Some want development to stop altogether, or limit the number of homes that can be built. “Stop urban sprawl” is a popular sentiment. And every time I hear things like this, there are a number of questions I want to ask and points I want to make (I spared my friend this barrage, but only because we had much more important things to talk about, like what other stores we would be stopping at.) But I want to pose these questions and thoughts to all of you who may believe the same way.

Do you live in a newer house? What was there before your house was? Does your house block someone else’s view? Was your house built on an area that used to be an “open space”? If so, do you think there might have been people who liked having it as open space then? If we go back far enough, our entire region once was “open space” before it was developed. Why don’t you live in an apartment or condo to help increase density?

But my questions don’t end there. Let’s look at the other side of development. Do you enjoy having new restaurants and stores in the Tri-Cities? Are you one of the ones clamoring for a Trader Joe’s, Cabela’s or some restaurant? Do remember when we didn’t even have an Olive Garden and how people would drive to Yakima for endless salad and breadsticks? Do you like all of the activities we have here — concerts, sporting events and more?

Guess what? If you like all of the amenities that we have in the Tri-Cities and you want more, but you don’t like all the new home construction, you’re stuck with a position in which you’ll never be able to “win.” We have all of this commercial development, new stores, places to eat and fun things to do because we have the population to support it all.

Rooftops spur those commercial amenities. Investors won’t build a new store, hoping that people will shop at it. They need to know the population is there, not just hope that it will come.

Even if you’re not one clamoring for new commercial development, growth occurs regardless. As our population grows, we need more places for people to live. There are different types of population growth that affect the need for new construction. People may move to the area for a new job or to retire; children who grow up and stay in the area and, of course, people are living longer, meaning the generational turnover in the housing stock doesn’t happen as early as it used to.

Stopping further residential development doesn’t mean we’re going to stop the population from growing. It may slow the influx of people moving here, but the population will continue to grow. If you don’t believe me, open the newspaper and compare the death announcements with the birth announcements. Our population is increasing at a rate far greater than most of us think about. And as a community continues to grow, we will continue to need places for people to live.

High-rises, apartments and condos are great for some people, but not everyone wants that for their home. Just like not everyone wants a single family home on five acres. We’re consumers and we make choices. This means we will need a variety of housing options based on what people who live here are willing and able to buy. It also means that we will need to continue to expand into buildable lands farther out of the current city and county limits — onto hilltops and into areas that are now “open” spaces.

As more homes are built to accommodate population growth, the need for additional professional services, shops, and the like also grows. Companies looking at our region see a thriving local economy with affordable and available housing, and they open new or expand existing businesses here. This economic growth spurs a need for more housing, which allows for more amenities to be offered to our region.

And it continues on like that, which is how the Tri-Cities area went from a small, nuclear-based economy to one of the strongest and most resilient in the state.

New home construction is an important part of this cycle of economic development and contributes to the overall economic health of an area.

If you own your home, you are well aware of the joys and frustrations that accompany the attainment of the American Dream.

The elation at having a piece of land and property, no matter how small, to call your own. That frustration when your neighbors paint their house an awful color.

We control what we can and learn to respect the rights of other private property owners — just like we want for ourselves. And yes, that may mean that a house is built in a style we don’t like or in an area that we used to enjoy as open space. But building homes for people to live in is a good thing — providing the basic need of shelter and helping people to better their lives and helping our region to strengthen our economy.

Jeff Losey is executive director of the Home Builders Association of Tri-Cities.

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