Bremerton is a place where people of many income levels live beside one another. It’s been that way for decades. People here were brought together by the military, and they could stay together because of low housing prices.
But things are changing. It’s the speed of the market that really grabs people now. A house goes up for sale in Bremerton on a Friday and, according to real estate agent Maggie Conyer, “by Monday we’re seeing a trend where there’s going to be four to five offers on the house already."
“There are cash offers.”
Many of these offers are from people outside Bremerton. Interest in Bremerton is up, and for locals it’s a challenging situation. They are fighting for homes with people who have cash.
“We’re just a young military couple, and we don’t have that kind of equity,” said Elizabeth Leonhardt. She and her husband had been trying to buy a house for months when they successfully pounced on 1,700 square feet with original hardwood in a sought-after neighborhood named Manette. “Finally.”
Their fortunes turned only after they got help. They found Debra Gartin, a retiree with an interest in real estate and fast reflexes. Gartin watched for the right house on the local Multiple Listings Service.
“She was very into it, so she would tell me something right away that would pop up on the MLS, because sometimes I’d be at work.”
Even with the help, the couple was only second in line. A cash offer had initially trumped theirs — again. When that offer stumbled, they were next. They paid $280,000, a price not much seen in Bremerton until recently.
Leonhardt pinches herself a little during her short commute to Bremerton’s downtown. “The drive to work now is beautiful," she said. “It’s mountains and water and ferries and – I never thought I’d be living in such a beautiful place.”
In Bremerton, it’s all about the mix. Different life stages, different backgrounds: They all meet here. When you meet people in Bremerton, it’s clear they know they have something special.
“I looked for diversity in Seattle, and I kind of found it,” said Rod Blackburn, a real estate agent. “But when I really found it was when I moved to little old Bremerton.
“I blame the Navy influence. You can be black, white, Filipino, whatever. Gay, straight, whatever. And we make it work.”
Some of the feeling of the city comes from a reasonable cost of living, which has become endangered on the Seattle side of the Sound.
But if prices rise and local wages don’t, then people be driven out, just as they have from cities in the core areas of the Puget Sound region.
“If anybody looks at the Seattle model, they can see vividly exactly what's going to happen in any of the other communities,” said Keith Dearborn a Seattle native who has spent his career working on regional planning and land use issues.
Dearborn isn't alone in believing that Bremerton will explode with growth, and he says displacement is also possible there. One solution is to build affordable housing into growth plans as Seattle is doing. That city has a deal with developers: affordable units in new projects in return for a break on fees.
But Dearborn said smaller cities don't have Seattle's clout to bargain with developers. And he argued that the convergence of the region’s displacement and traffic congestion problems means it's time for a regional strategy.
According to Dearborn, all the cities in the region should have roughly the same policy on building affordable housing as they grow.
"When I say region, I'm talking about an area that is much bigger than King County,” he said. “It goes all the way to Bellingham and it leads to Centralia” as well as east and west to Bremerton.