Agenda 2002: Census 2000 shows unsettling trends

South Sound growth stressing communities, families

The News Tribune

May 13, 2002 - The U.S. Census Bureau's latest batch of numbers on the South Sound region has one consistent theme: stress.

As detailed by News Tribune reporters last week in a three-day series, Census 2000 shows South Sound communities in the throes of rapid change - much of it driven by population growth, and most of it unsettling.

Most cities and towns reported higher household incomes in 2000 than in 1990. This trend is especially pronounced in areas once considered rural. Orting, Yelm, Eatonville, DuPont and Carbonado all saw their median incomes shoot up by more than 30 percent.

It's not that the old-timers in such communities have suddenly gotten richer; the higher incomes largely belong to newcomers, many of whom are fleeing escalating housing costs in King County. As Eijiro Kawada reported Friday, the influx of wealthier commuters has radically changed the character of rural towns, sometimes creating new animosities in the process.

Other cities - typically those with less room for new subdivisions - have seen their median household incomes stagnate or drop when inflation is factored in. The loss exceeded 10 percent or more in the case of Fife, Fircrest, SeaTac, Federal Way and Gig Harbor. The rising cost of housing accounts for much of the erosion in buying power: The median home value in Washington state rose a staggering 81 percent in the 1990s, from $92,800 to $168,300.

The region's rising real estate costs are pushing two troubling trends. The percentage of people who own their own home is slipping: It stood just less than 65 percent 2002, down from the highwater mark of 68.5 percent in the 1960s. And an increasing number of people who don't own their homes are hard-pressed to keep up on their rent: Four out of 10 renters are now paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

Longer commutes are another worrisome trend. Over the last decade, population growth and suburban sprawl combined to stretch the average commute time in Pierce County from 24 to 28 minutes. Workers in King, Thurston and Kitsap counties are likewise spending more of each day on the road - and away from their loved ones.

These are all warning signs. They point to a need for higher-paying jobs in the South Sound, more higher education opportunities, more investment in roads and public transit, more community-building initiatives and better management of the region's continuing growth. The Census 2000 numbers are a timely reminder that quality of life we cherish could wind up a casualty of change - unless we do what's necessary to save it.

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