Expanding Washington’s housing supply

Expanding Washington’s housing supply
Building and labor industry members offered recommendations on how to improve the state’s housing supply at a recent work session of the House Community Development, Housing and Tribal Affairs Committee. Photo: Rishichhibber

Although Seattle’s real estate market has finally begun to cool, a shortage of available housing remains a statewide problem that has also contributed to a lack of affordable housing.

In August, the median price for a single family home in Seattle was $760,000, a 4.1 percent increase from the same time last year. The median statewide home price is now $356,000, and the state Department of Commerce estimates that figure will only climb before the end of the year. That has also affected the rental market: Inc. Magazine ranks Seattle as the sixth most expensive place to rent in the nation.

Solutions to improve affordability was the topic of a recent state House committee work session that included new types of co-housing that may require legislation to make it easier to obtain project financing. At the same time, regional building industry associations continue to tout accessory dwelling units (ADUs) as an effective way to increase the rental supply without taking up new land.

“A cottage is a fantastic affordable tool for a homeowner,” Marco Lowe said at the Oct. 1 work session of the House Community Development, Housing and Tribal Affairs Committee. He is the political director for the Master Builders Association for King and Snohomish Counties (MBAKS).

He added that “allowing for additional neighbors in the same area drives down a home’s costs while also allowing maximum use of existing utilities.

“In many ways we’re seeing a second step to the state’s historic Growth Management Act,” he said. “The urban growth boundaries are holding, but now that the growth has continued in terms of job growth, the housing growth hasn’t kept up. More jobs, slow housing growth has created the prices we see today.”

The city of Seattle is looking to ease restrictions on ADUs while streamlining the permitting process, something municipalities are contemplating. Through a series of tweets, MBAKS pointed to the many requirements and restrictions imposed by cities in King County on ADUs. “We believe cottage housing is an important part of the greater solution to ease the affordable housing crisis in the Puget Sound region.”

Other options might include a new type of co-housing in which several housing units surround a common house structure. The individual units are sold under market value, but include covenants permanently locking in the resale price when adjusted for inflation and property value increases. However, because developer profits would also be capped, financing might prove difficult.

Another change that could help increase the housing supply is local zoning changes, particularly in suburban cities with nearby job centers, yet still restrict growth to one unit per acre, Lowe said. “That is incredible.

“I don’t think that any city or county are implementing policies in a way that they’re trying to drive up housing costs, but many times they do anyway,” he said. However, “if you have to wait a few weeks for an inspector to come out and see the wiring and the project stops, that could be thousands of dollars. If it’s a two-month delay for transportation to be approved, it could be tens of thousands of dollars.”

Impact fees and other requirements can also make construction financially unworkable, he said.  “There’s no certainty.”

His testimony matched similar observations made by Senior Policy Advisor Emily Grossman for the Department of Commerce’s Community Services and Housing. She told panel members that local land use policy and additional regulations have contributed to the shortage by limiting the amount and type of housing constructed.

“What we’re talking about here are setback requirements, zoning regulations,” she added. “(A) big factor are fees, particularly in all jurisdictions, but we’ve seen…rural jurisdictions pass along the cost of infrastructure to support housing development onto developers.”

Another possible cause for the housing shortage is another shortage: available labor to build them. Though the housing demand has been great for construction employment, Political Director Jimmy Haun with the Northwest Council of Carpenters told the committee that the situation has also left them unable to take on construction projects.

“We are, to put it bluntly, overwhelmed with work,” he said. “We can’t recruit apprentices fast enough.”

According to Grossman, that shortage has left the city of Port Townsend unable to utilize an apartment building they shipped on a barge from Victoria, BC until someone is able to lay the foundation. “That’s just an example of how tough the competition is for contractors.”

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