EVERETT — Snohomish County will need to build 7,000 new affordable housing units every year for the next 21 years to compensate for the growing population.
That’s the word from County Executive Dave Somers, who spoke about the challenges of the county’s rapid growth to public leaders during a meeting of the Economic Alliance Snohomish County at Boeing’s Future of Flight Museum on Tuesday. The aviation center hosted Somers’ address, which touched on aviation, the economy, housing, homelessness and safety.
It was a snapshot of the direction Somers sees the county headed in.
‘The crown jewel’ of the local economy
Accounting for over 155,000 jobs and nearly $60 billion in yearly economic activity, Paine Field Airport is “the crown jewel” of Snohomish County’s economy, Somers said.
“If you asked anyone on the street which (airport) was more economically viable, they’d probably say Sea-Tac,” he said. “But it’s Paine Field by a factor of three.”
In 2019, the county and Propeller Airports launched commercial air service at Paine Field, becoming the first public-private partnership like it in the United States.
Last month, Washington State University announced a Sustainable Aviation Fuel Research and Development Center at Paine Field — the first of its kind in the world. Its potential economic benefits for the county are “enormous,” as is its predicted role in addressing climate change, Somers said.
The center will collect more sustainable aviation fuel samples from around the world and then test them for safety, performance and chemical similarity to conventional jet fuel. To jump-start the project, the center is expected to receive $6.5 million in funds from the state Department of Transportation.
In addition to new developments from Paine Field, there’s much to be done as the county and economy continues to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic, Somers said.
Adequate access to child care and broadband in rural areas are two barriers that have kept folks out of the workforce.
To help, the county is pumping $16 million into expanding broadband access along Highway 530. It has also earmarked $12 million to help eliminate child care deserts and provide resources.
“I’m always shocked when I say this,” Somers said in regards to the estimated 7,000 new affordable housing units needed per year. That’s 143,182 new units by 2044, according to the latest housing projection from Washington State Department of Commerce.
The issue needs to be tackled “at the state level” first, he explained, but the county is “laser-focused” on creating more affordable housing to staunch the hemorrhaging.
Somers said the county has been working on infill to encourage townhouses, accessory dwelling units and future development around transit centers. The county is also looking to buy units for low-barrier transitional shelters.
West of I-5, south of Everett, and north of Lynnwood sits a no man’s land the county calls the Southwest Urban Growth Area. It’s technically unincorporated Snohomish County, but if it were to become a real city, it would be one of the largest cities in Washington.
“The fact of the matter is, we’re going to continue to grow,” Somers said in an interview Friday. “And you can either grow more dense and up, or you grow out — and that means gobbling up farm lands and rural areas.”
If housing levels continue to not meet demands, the already dire homelessness situation could grow worse, Somers said.
In the fall, the County Council approved the purchase of two hotels that will be used as low-barrier transitional housing. The Days Inn in Everett and Americas Best Value in Edmonds were both bought with federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars.
Last week, officials were considering taking similar action by buying Hope Church on Rucker Avenue for use as a housing shelter, but dozens turned out for back-to-back public meetings last week. Outcry forced the county to hit pause on the project — but the county’s still looking at its options.
“Without a home, a person in recovery will struggle to stay clean, children cannot learn and reach their full potential, a single mother cannot pursue education and career pathways that will improve her family’s outlook, and veterans who have faithfully served our country will continue to suffer and die on our streets,” Somers said Tuesday.
As far as priorities go, money tends to follow.
Seventy-five percent of the county’s general fund is budgeted for law and justice.
Two weeks ago, the county advocated for the state Legislature to give Snohomish County another District Court judge — the first expansion of the Court in over two decades — and they secured the position.
Somers also cited his new partnership with the sheriff’s office that has gotten 14 people into housing since February. The social worker program is called the Snohomish County Outreach Team, or SCOUT, and it aims to help people struggling with addiction and homelessness. This year, the sheriff’s office also relaunched the Office of Neighborhoods, which will work in tandem with SCOUT.
“We are at a moment of renewal, where our economy, the safety of our community, and our environment can rebound from the disruptions of the last few years,” Somers said. “I believe more than ever that we can create the future we choose.”
Kayla J. Dunn: 425-339-3449; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @KaylaJ_Dunn.
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