Housing as “critical infrastructure”

Housing as “critical infrastructure”
As Washington state experiences a lack of available and affordable housing, some believe the state Growth Management Act requires more teeth if the situation is to improve. Photo: freepik.com

The state Growth Management Act (GMA) remains a primary focus for stakeholders who are trying to address Washington state’s housing shortage and lack of affordability. While some efforts to reform the decades-old law have cleared the state legislature, others have floundered due to conflicting visions among legislators, builders, and local government officials with regard to planning and zoning.

One possible approach under consideration is a stronger top-down approach to planning that some believe would give teeth to GMA’s goals and allow for greater housing density and options.

Duana Koloušková is a partner at Johns Monroe Mitsunaga Koloušková, PLLC and has represented private clients in front of the Growth Management Hearings Board. At an Association of Washington Business (AWB) Sept. 23 housing summit, she said one of the problems with GMA is that it lacks legal mandates where affordable housing is concerned, creating a “tragedy of the commons.”

“There is no further direction or elaboration on what cities are supposed to do,” she said.

Under GMA, counties and cities must conduct regular updates to their comprehensive plans regarding zoning and land use – including types of housing allowed. However, one criticism raised, particularly within the central Puget Sound region, is that while some cities have sought to increase housing density, other local jurisdictions have not.

“Too many jurisdictions have either expressed or de facto one-acre zoning,” Koloušková said. “The result of this lack of directive is that for more than two decades we’ve now entered into what is effectively a collective action problem,” which in essence means the various jurisdictions must cooperate to address the issue.. She added there’s “no political space” for a single city council to act that “can meaningfully impact housing affordability.”

Koloušková recommended the inclusion of housing standards within GMA that reflects those used in the case of other issues such as critical areas. She said that due to the absence of those guidelines, coupled with regulatory burdens, a situation is created where only high-value or low-income housing is financially viable for builders.

“We have a limited amount of land available for (a) residential developer,” she said. “Costs to build homes are exorbitant. Zoning restricts the type of homes that can be built. We desperately need to address the regulatory costs that are imposed on the housing industry.”

Rep. Denny Heck (D-10) said at the summit that there needs to be a change in attitude towards residential development by regarding “housing as an ecosystem….Housing is infrastructure, and we all ought to adopt that mantra.”

“One would never come up with a system whereby you have a critical competent infrastructure that has absolutely no standards tied to it,” Koloušková said.

While real estate prices within the Puget Sound region have skyrocketed in recent years and resulted in housing shortages, it’s a problem also faced in rural areas such as Stevens County. County Land Services Director Eric Johansen told summit attendees that the population for Colville, the county’s largest city, has remained stagnant for decades. Most of the new growth has occurred in the rural part of the county.

“Most people who find themselves here…are just not interested in owning a home on a quarter acre lot in one of our incorporated cities,” Johansen said. “They want 20 acres within five miles of town and to have a hobby farm or manage their timber ground.”

One of the reasons for the lack of urban population growth is that “affordable housing is directly linked to economic development opportunities. It’s difficult under GMA.”

He added that the GMA Hearings Board has also further restricted housing units by ruling against the construction of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in rural parts of Stevens County. “If someone in the rural area can put in a 1,000 square foot dwelling unit…they can provide either a rental facility for somebody just getting started or house an aging family member. I think that is a pretty simple solution, (and) does not create sprawl. I think it would go a long way in this community.”

AWB’s next virtual summit is scheduled for Oct. 20.

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