Reforming the housing development process

Reforming the housing development process
The House Local Government Committee held a work session in Federal Way examining the state Growth Management Act and other state and local policies that can undermine housing affordability. Photo: freepik.com

Following a recent  housing summit in Bellevue, the House Local Government Committee held a work session in Federal Way examining the various public policies involved in development and potential reforms that could improve housing affordability.

The July 31 meeting included panel members representing city and county planning departments who offered their perspectives on challenges to housing or the way land-use policies are implemented.

A presentation by the William D. Ruckelshaus Center underscored the high priority placed on housing affordability by Washington residents. In the 2017-19 budget, the legislature appropriated funding for the Center to create a “Road Map to Washington’s Future.” For the report, the Center hosted more than two dozen workshops throughout the state.

Project Co-Lead Amanda Murphy told lawmakers that a common concern “whether we were in urban areas, rural areas, big cities, small cities” was affordability. According to Zillow, the median house price in Washington is $389,000; in July 2015, the median price was only $273,000. Zillow anticipates the median price will reach $400,000 by next June.

“Everywhere we went, that was a concern…again, whether we were in dense urban areas (or not),” Murphy said.

Various state, regional and local frameworks and processes impact housing development. The state Growth Management Act (GMA) created in the early 1990s requires cities and most counties to do long-term land-use planning via comprehensive plans, which are updated every eight years. The plans include zoning, which determines how a property can be used and what kind of infrastructure can be built on it. GMA also requires most counties to create urban growth boundaries (UGAs) that are separate from rural areas with a lower maximum density allowed.

Although GMA is intended to prevent urban sprawl, critics say it hamstrings cities and counties by imposing a statewide policy that doesn’t consider the differences between regions.

As a Chelan County commissioner, Rep. Keith Goehner (R-12) said GMA “was one of the most difficult mandates from the state that we had to deal with. One of the frustrations…is that for many, many years we were looking for changes to GMA. They haven’t materialized.”

King County is not only the most populous county at two million people, but it is also has the highest density with 870 people per square mile. In contrast, Stevens County has 43,541 residents and only 17 people per square mile and is only expected to gain 1,200 people over the next 20 years.

Stevens County Land Services Director Erik Johansen told committee members that “we are still planning under the same framework, with the same requirements…but we have a very, very different situation. I think it’s important for the folks in the room, including yourselves, to understand that we face a set of challenges that are different.”

Yet, he added “we also face a set of challenges that are similar to some of the ones you’ve heard today – housing availability and affordability.”

Rather than specific policy changes, the Ruckelshaus report recommended additional summits to discuss GMA reforms intended to “improve planning and implementation for rural and urban communities.” The report also suggested changing the comprehensive plan updates from eight years to 10 years so that they coincide with the Federal Census.

Another statewide policy affecting housing development is the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) process. HB 1923, passed during this year’s legislative session, exempts some residential construction from appeals under that process. However, one county planning official indicated that it’s “questionable” whether eliminating SEPA would speed up project timelines though raised the idea of the state discouraging SEPA appeals.

HB 1923 also offers grants for qualified cities that engage in a variety of land-use options intended to boost the urban housing supply. Some panel members said the grants help cover mitigation costs that aren’t covered by permit fees.

King County Regional Planning Director Lauren Smith said that already permits “can be expensive and time consuming. They add to the cost of land development and housing. We should try and be as efficient as we possibly can be in designing our processes and maintaining our processes.”

Project Co-Lead Joseph Tovar also suggested changes to the state’s tax structure to address the shortfall. “The system is really not designed to meet the needs of the present (growth), much less the growth that is coming. We have a population of 7.6 million; 25,30 years ago, it was about 4.2 million. And the next 15 or 20 years we’re looking at other million or two – yet we have the same tax code that we’ve had for quite a while.”

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