The farther people flee from the major metro areas, the cheaper the housing. But there’s only so far they can run, because there’s an imaginary wall that stops development from sprawling all over the landscape, a wall that protects the less developed green places that make the region beautiful.
It’s called the urban growth boundary. Beyond it, developers face more restrictions.
Just inside the boundary, Marysville, Washington, is growing fast as existing rents trend higher and higher. For those who can't afford it, there's nowhere left to go.
“Everything is new and upcoming. It’s like when you get a new toy, it’s exciting,” said Elizabeth Mehlbrech about her new $1,500 a month apartment in a complex called The Lodge (her price includes pet-rent and parking).
The Lodge project brings hundreds of new apartments to where there used to be forests, farms and five-acre parcels. It's right by the freeway.
Mehlbrech has looked at a lot of rentals, and knows the cost of new apartments rises steadily as one gets closer and closer to Seattle. Compared to Seattle, Mehlbrech said these places are a bargain. “People are already pre-renting their apartment while they’re still being built right now," she said.
KUOW’s Region of Boom Team is looking at the effect of growth – on the whole region. This month we’re in Marysville. Next month: Black Diamond. Where else should we go? Tweet @KUOW #RegionOfBoom
In another part of Marysville, they’re cranking out huge homes – four and five bedroom houses – on tiny pieces of property for the people who want a little elbow room for their families but don't want to pay Seattle prices.
Developer Sunshine Kapus met me at Gamut360 Holdings' Allen Creek Park development, where contractors were pouring a new driveway slab.
She said profit margins are lower for developers out here, but they can make up for that in volume, because there’s so much open land here.
She managed to pack 30 new homes into this development. Giving up the big backyard in favor of a shared outdoor area helped keep house prices just above $400,000. A similar home in Seattle might cost $700,000.
Kapus would have liked to get the price lower, but there are infrastructure costs out here that you might not expect.
“In this particular neighborhood we had to buy the school district a bus,” she told me. The city required the $150,000 purchase because there wasn't a safe path for kids to get to school.
Like in many places, growth comes before infrastructure.
And once people relocate out here, they often find it’s not as cheap as they’d hoped.
Haley Willoughby has a family of four, plus a cat and a Great Dane puppy. They moved to Marysville from Everett. Her crowded household somehow managed to find room for two more adult roommates, which brought the family's rent down from $1,950 to $1,250.
For those who’ve been here a long time, all those newcomers are causing stress. “Everybody seems to pack in here. It seems like a new town,” said Robert Max, 70.
His income isn’t going up, but his rent still rises. “It seems like we’re in a hole, and we’re struggling to get out and we just can’t get out,” Max said.
What do you do when you can’t pay the rent and there’s nowhere farther out you can move to? A lot of people call Gene Rutherford, who runs the Marysville/Tulalip Salvation Army. They ask him for help with their rent. In the last two years, those calls have doubled.
“There’s a lot of people hurting out there. And we hear a lot of stories,” said Rutherford. He has to turn down many of those requests for rent assistance.
“And that’s hard," he said, "When you can’t help somebody, all you can do is pray. So we do.”
Way off in the distance the economy of Seattle is booming. It drives up the cost of living, even out here.
If developers could build anywhere they wanted, people might be able to find abundant cheaper places farther out.
But that isn’t in our current regional growth plan. It would force us to give up the green places we’ve pledged to protect, outside the urban growth boundary.
Joshua McNichols can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Have a story idea? Use our story pitch form.