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Could better transit be the key to fixing Seattle’s growing housing crisis?

Light rail in Seattle. (Lee LeFever, Flickr Creative Commons

A recent 60 Minutes special on Seattle presented the argument that the city’s homeless crisis was directly tied to affordable housing. But how do we make housing affordable in one of the nation’s most expensive markets? The answer could very well lie in transit.

“When you have a limited amount of land upon which to build, what does that do?” Windermere Chief Economist Matthew Gardner posited to Seattle’s Morning News on KIRO Radio. “That certainly pushes prices higher and therefore, pushes out families further. A better mass transit infrastructure could free up land further to the south and to the north that people can live in more affordably, and still have a reasonable commute.”

Gardner points out that people will always want to live close to where they work, and will often be willing to pay a premium for that convenience. That’s part of what drives Seattle’s own booming real estate market, with tens of thousands of highly-paid tech workers shopping for homes that help them avoid a lengthy commute.

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“We are comfortable living 35 minutes away from where we work, and that’s been a proven number of over time,” said Gardner. “It can’t be 55 minutes one day on an hour-and-45 the next — if you can make it so that people can predictably get from A to B, that will help.”

With the fastest commutes existing inside of Seattle city limits, that leaves a large swathe of home-buyers who can’t afford rising prices to live hours away from work. If you were to able to cut that commute in half, the housing demand — and subsequently, home prices — in Seattle could potentially fall too.

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And the best way to accomplish that goal?

“It’s very hard for us to build more roads, because we haven’t got the land to do it, and so we need to look at light rail, [and] look at different options out there — that frees up a lot of land elsewhere,” Gardner outlined.

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