The cover of Newsweek on May 20, 1996 read: “Swimming to Seattle: Everybody Else is Moving There. Should You?”
If you got beyond the preposterous cover image of journalist Michael Kinsley wearing a sou’wester hat, the article did point to the powerful impact from a golden age that Seattle found itself enjoying during the 1990s. People were moving to the region in large numbers, approaching the blistering pace of the mid-1960s (a time of a big Boeing ramp-up).
The 1990s brought aggressive efforts to deal with — or, in the minds of many, to discourage — growth, including the state Growth Management Act and Seattle’s Citizens Alternative Plan limiting downtown growth. But the measures often seemed futile.
In many ways, the 1990s were not all that unusual. The Seattle region has always attracted newcomers, even when times are tough. A brutal, double-dip recession in the early 1980s had failed to halt people moving here. Even the Boeing Bust at the start of the 1970s provoked less outflow of people from the Puget Sound region than might have been expected, given the magnitude of that economic calamity. (The famous billboard asking the last person leaving to turn out the lights vastly overstated the rush to get out of town.) And during the recent Great Recession, when migration around the country slowed dramatically, people still came to the shores of Puget Sound.
Those experiences hold a big lesson for the region: We are likely to keep seeing growth for the foreseeable future, assuming we don't make major mistakes.
Population growth has two components. "Natural” growth is measured as births minus deaths. The second component, “net migration,” is measured as people moving in minus those moving away (in-migrants minus out-migrants). Over the past 50 years, about 55 percent of growth in the Puget Sound region has resulted from this phenomenon, net in-migration. During that time, the nation grew at an annual rate of just about 1 percent (the natural rate plus foreign immigration), while the Puget Sound region grew by about 1.6 percent per year. Since Washington’s natural growth rate is about average, the only way to grow faster than the country as a whole is to have more people moving in than moving out.
It is important, though, to focus not just on the net rate of in-migration, but also on the total flow of people in and out of the region. According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey five-year average for 2007-2011 (a time period when migration around the country slowed considerably), the Puget Sound region experienced an average annual net inflow from other states of about 10,000 people. But that net figure masks the larger total flow: each year about 100,000 people moved into the region from other states while about 90,000 people moved out of the region to other states. Furthermore, each year an average of about 25,000 people move to the three-county central Sound region (King, Pierce and Snohomish counties) from other parts of Washington and 35,000 people arrive from foreign countries.
In other words, approximately 5 percent of the population — about 1-in-every-20 people — is newly arrived each year.
Not surprisingly, the migration picture varies around the region. Of those moving into King County, only about 30 percent come from somewhere else in Washington, while 55 percent of those moving into Snohomish County come from elsewhere in the state. (Migration data for Pierce County are heavily skewed by its large military population.)
A rough pattern has become clear over the past decade: People move to King County from other states and abroad, having been recruited by employers, and residents of King County move to adjacent counties in search of affordable homes. During the housing boom of the past decade, that pattern expanded, with residents priced out of Pierce and Snohomish counties moving up and down Interstate 5 to Thurston and Skagit counties.
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