Building a sustainable housing future

Housing experts are noting the unstainable trend of Washington’s housing prices, and say work needs to be done to help improve attainability. Photo: Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties

The Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties (MBAKS) hosted builders, developers, realtors and other housing stakeholders for its fourth annual housing summit, where industry experts offered solutions to fix Washington’s housing attainability and affordability problems.

During the event this week, MBAKS unveiled its 2018 legislative agenda to fix housing prices and help increase supply, which included increasing density and building homes for people of all income levels.

“Recognizing that our region is facing a significant affordable housing crisis, we believe it’s time for us to come together and implement a bold legislative agenda that helps ensure housing opportunities for all,” the MBAKS’ 10-point plan states.

Over the next year, MBAKS will be advocating for increased allowances for short plats within Urban Growth Areas (UGAs), as they are exempted from the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) review.

A short plat, also known as a short subdivision, divides up a piece of property in four lots when it is outside the UGA, or nine or fewer lots within the UGA. MBAKS would like to change the urban standard ceiling for short plats up to 30 lots, which the association says will decrease builder cost and time spent navigating regulatory barriers when they construct new homes in UGAs.

Another key recommendation is to modify the Growth Management Act (GMA) to allow for minimum urban net densities of up to six dwelling units per acre in UGAs – an increase from the current allowance of four. MBAKS leadership says this would allow for more density and affordable housing near job centers.

Another of MBAKS’ objectives is to require comprehensive plans to adopt a separate single-family resident target to help local jurisdictions plan for and meet market demands for that housing type.

Elliot Eisenberg, P.hD., served as the event’s first speaker, and focused his remarks on the nation’s troubling housing environment and what can be done to see improvements in housing prices and attainment. He is a nationally renowned economist from Washington, D.C.

For Eisenberg, the problem lies with the lack of affordable homes entering the market.

“We are not building enough homes because builders effectively can’t build homes at the lower prices and make any money,” he told event attendees.

“Density is the solution. Whether you like it or not, you must have higher density,” he added. “It’s the only way to reduce the cost per square foot of the unit.”

Five to 10 years ago, the regulatory cost to build a home in the U.S. was $65,000. The same house would now cost $85,000 to build, he said.

“If you impose these cost on the builders, the builders have no choice – they have to pass it on to somebody.”

Also troubling is that income rates are not keeping up with housing or rent prices.

In 2016, Washingtonian wages grew 4.8 percent, however home values rose 10.9 percent.

“Something has to give, and we are starting to see it: housing sales are starting to flatten out,” said Eisenberg.  “It is beginning to exact its toll on housing activity because people are running out of money. It’s that simple.”

Eisenberg concluded his remarks by suggesting several solutions that require limited money. They include:

  • Build all types of housing and let the market sort it out;
  • Promote micro-housing and single-room occupancy living spaces; and
  • Encourage density

Brian Bonlender, director of the Washington State Department of Commerce, spoke to the future of Seattle housing if the current trend is left unaddressed.

“People are asking whether or not the Puget Sound region is going to turn into San Francisco Bay region – well, we already are the San Francisco Bay region of five years ago,” he said. “The question we need to ask ourselves is whether or not we want to be what the San Francisco Bay area is today.”

Bonlender said the state needs increased collaboration between developers, realtors, builders and those who are pushing for more density.

“This is really within our control. This is something that, through the way we structure rules on a local level, we can in theory fix,” he added. “The problem is it’s up to each community in a given market…to figure out how to increase density, to figure out what is truly buildable land and then remedy those situations.”

Problems arise when not every community agrees to the same goal, he said, which makes it more difficult for adjacent communities to achieve the same results.

The department’s Housing Affordability Response Team (HART) also weighed it with its own recommendations. Key objectives include identifying public lands which could be used for affordable housing and providing stable funding for local governments to plan for housing at all income levels, especially low-income.

State Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34) spoke to event-goers about the power of local input on housing needs.

“There already is a backlog of jobs and people moving to this area that can’t find an affordable place to live. We need to grow that supply within the urban areas… and that will require all the cities in our region…to up-zone and to allow the growth of market-rate housing in their communities,” he said.

Fitzgibbon added that not everyone wants to live in multi-family housing for the rest of their lives. To prevent this, cities should allow more growth by building more townhouses and affordable single-family units. Also important is raising minimum urban density levels.

“There’s no question that is going to be a tough conversation in Olympia because lawmakers are jittery about local control, and I think we do want to respect local control, but we also need to have basic floors that jurisdictions are not falling below in order to make sure that we can catch up with the supply of housing in this region.”

MBAKS leadership closed the summit with a call to action, asking attendees to consider the proposed solutions and join the association’s efforts in making real change to create affordable and attainable housing in 2018.

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