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Housing affordability crisis requires bold action

One of the biggest challenges facing our region is a lack of attainable housing, especially near job centers. Continued growth is driving the demand for more housing, and the strong demand is outpacing supply, causing home prices and rents to soar. This is making housing increasingly out of reach for families and workers and threatening our area’s quality of life.

The Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties (MBA) recently held our 4th Annual Housing Summit to focus on housing attainability solutions. Our region’s affordable housing crisis requires a bold legislative agenda that helps ensure housing opportunities for all. That is why we have introduced a 10-point plan for housing attainability.

The plan includes solutions designed to increase housing supply where it’s needed most – near job centers – and practical process improvements intended to minimize unnecessary and costly hurdles to new home construction, without compromising environmental protections.

While there have been many efforts to address the lack of affordable housing, the ideas contained in the 10-point plan must also be part of the solution. Some proposals require state legislative action while others can be implemented locally.

To increase housing supply, the plan calls for establishing a minimum net urban density standard of up to six units per acre within urban growth areas in our region. The Growth Management Act (GMA) already calls for growth to be directed to urban areas. However, many cities resist growth and make it exceedingly difficult to provide new housing. Establishing a minimum urban net density standard would be an important step toward creating a healthy, sustainable balance between housing supply and demand.

Additionally, the plan calls for advancing the Housing Affordability Response Team recommendations, which include a variety of actions to improve housing supply and affordability. One of them is to create more accountability for cities and counties planning under the GMA in meeting their growth targets.

Enacting condominium liability reform is another solution that would create more supply by removing obstacles to constructing this affordable housing type. The current regulatory environment for condominium construction in Washington state places significant liability on builders, making it prohibitively costly to bring condominiums to market at an affordable price point. Practical solutions are needed to address this hurdle, such as restricting the board of directors of a condominium from participating in litigation without approval from the unit owners.

The plan also calls for successful implementation of SB 5254, legislation signed into law last July to improve the methodology and process by which buildable lands are assessed under the GMA. Having an improved process in place will help to clarify the steps needed to increase housing supply on land that is designated for growth.

Other solutions contained in the 10-point plan are intended to reduce costs and delays on new home construction. One idea is to change the urban standard for short plats to nine lots in urban growth areas (UGAs) with a local option to allow short plats to go up to 30 lots. Currently, short subdivisions are four or fewer lots, but local jurisdictions have the option to go up to nine lots in UGAs, as many have already done. This change would save builders substantial time and money associated with the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) process without compromising environmental protections, and local government could save the resources associated with this type of review.

Another solution is to modify the Local Project Review Act to eliminate the 28-day completeness review and the 14-day re-review for a determination of consistency. This is an unnecessary step which can add weeks, if not months, to a permit application process without adding any corresponding value. This change would alleviate a significant cost pressure on new home construction while also making the permit process more predictable.

The plan also calls for codifying vesting of local permits to provide the predictability and certainty needed for new housing projects to move forward.

One proposal would change the approval threshold for school bond measures from 60 percent to a simple majority. This would reduce the need to fall back on costly impact fees that only serve to drive up housing costs.

Rounding out the 10-point plan are proposals to adopt fee simple townhouse codes, and requiring comprehensive plans to specify a detached single-family residence target. The primary benefit of fee simple is that this ownership type makes it easier for buyers and builders alike to obtain financing from banks and obtain insurance. A minimum detached single-family residence requirement would encourage local jurisdictions to plan for a housing type a significant portion of the homebuying market demands. Currently, comprehensive plans are not required to state their single-family goals.

The MBA stands ready to partner with regional leaders and stakeholders to address our lack of affordable and attainable housing. Let us work to ensure the 10-point plan for housing attainability is part of the solution.

Erich Armbruster is President of Ashworth Homes and First Vice President of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties.

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