Affordable homes require planning, good transportation

The question of how to create more affordable housing has been a hotly debated topic this year, especially in the city of Seattle with the release last summer of the Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory Committee’s recommendations.

This is a critical discussion and I commend the committee and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray for their leadership on housing as well as their efforts to advance solutions. However, as anyone living in Snohomish or King counties knows, housing affordability and availability are not just Seattle issues. The rising cost of housing and the challenges families face in trying to find affordable housing near their jobs are cause for concern throughout our entire region.

Our strong economy and quality of life is driving growth — and bringing with it a higher cost of living. One big factor creating upward pressure on home prices is not having enough new housing to keep up with demand. A diminishing supply of buildable land throughout King and Snohomish counties and beyond is contributing to this housing shortage. It’s a regional issue that is negatively affecting the building industry’s ability to provide market-rate housing that is affordable to most buyers, especially in areas where people want to live.

What can be done to address this issue? The Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties recently held its second annual Housing Summit to continue a regional dialogue about the diminishing supply of buildable land and reasonable steps that can be taken to create more housing supply. This year’s summit had a special focus on transportation, as the two are very closely linked. One way in which they’re related is that rising housing costs lead to longer and longer commutes as workers have to commute farther from job centers to find affordable housing, contributing to more congestion on our roadways.

Regional leaders and experts who gathered for the Housing Summit discussed ways to better meet Growth Management Act (GMA) housing targets through investments in transportation.

Josh Brown, executive director of the Puget Sound Regional Council, highlighted the billions of dollars in investments already being made in transportation throughout the region including roads and light rail, and pointed to additional spending that is possible with upcoming votes.

King County Executive Dow Constantine spoke about the need to build housing and transportation together, and Sound Transit’s efforts to partner with cities to build more housing around transit centers. He also expressed his hope that future transit spending will lead to a dramatic increase in capacity in the current transit system which in turn will help spur infill housing development.

There is no question that increasing density and promoting housing near transit has to be part of the solution for meeting our region’s housing needs and improving affordability. But as we think about housing and its relationship to transportation, more is needed to fully address the problem. As Matthew Gardner, chief economist with Windermere Services Co., pointed out at the summit, density is not a panacea because of market demand for other housing types. In other words, not everyone wants to live in a downtown high-rise, and many people simply prefer to drive in their cars. How do we then, as a region, ensure we can continue to provide a variety of housing types to accommodate what the market wants?

One key message attendees heard at the summit was to take a fresh look at the tools we use under the Growth Management Act in planning for growth. Gardner pointed out a disconnect that exists between buildable lands reports that say adequate capacity for growth exists, when what we’re experiencing on the ground is a low lot supply. Part of the reason for this disconnect is that planners are not being asked to measure market demand, nor do any kind of assessment of affordability of land or housing, or an evaluation of infrastructure availability, when considering how much land is left for future growth.

We need to continue making sure housing and transportation planning go hand in hand. We also need to reassess the GMA to ensure that policies intended to prevent sprawl aren’t actually accelerating it, as homebuyers are forced to drive farther away from job centers to find housing they can afford. Furthermore, elected leaders need to make sure local land use policies allow for an appropriate range of housing types near job and transportation centers.

If we can better learn how to make transportation support our housing needs here in the Puget Sound region, we can grow better and smarter, and collectively build communities we can all be proud to call home.

Shannon Affholter is the executive director of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties and a former Everett City Council member.

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