Amy Ulrich walks her dog Kahlua by the Waterfront Place Apartments at the Port of Everett on Monday, March 30, in Everett. Much of the complex, still under construction, burned in a massive fire in mid-July. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Amy Ulrich walks her dog Kahlua by the Waterfront Place Apartments at the Port of Everett on Monday, March 30, in Everett. Much of the complex, still under construction, burned in a massive fire in mid-July. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Purchase Photo

Editorial: Changes needed to build more middle-income housing

Middle-income families are less able to find affordable housing in Everett, forcing them out of town.

By The Herald Editorial Board

It can seem — judging by the building activity we see around us — as if Everett and much of the rest of Snohomish County is seeing a building boom.

But bigger booms — in jobs and in population — have overtaken housing construction.

While construction of housing has increased about 24 percent in Everett in the 20 years between 1999 and 2018, its population growth has outpaced construction, rising 28 percent. Recent declines in housing construction have cut in to the gains seen in boom years in 2001 and 2006.

Even with a surge of 747 units of housing built in 2016, the city still averaged only 231 units a year between 2011 and 2018, compared to an average of 650 units a year in the first 10 years of the period, according to a City of Everett housing profile completed in 2019.

At the same time, median home prices have soared, pricing out middle-income homeowners and renters. A median-priced single-family home cost $194,750 in 2011; by 2018, the same home fetched about $390,000, more than doubling in price, and putting home ownership here out of the reach of many with middle-income employment.

That shortage of housing available for rent or ownership for middle-income families in Everett has prompted a multi-year effort by the City of Everett, called Rethink Housing, seeking strategies to secure the housing needs of current and future residents in a city that is expected to need 23,000 new housing units in less than 15 years.

As part of the effort, which includes a series of forums and chats this year, Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin invited Chris Gregoire to speak at an online Facebook forum last month. Gregoire, the former two-term governor, is chief executive of Challenge Seattle, a policy organization that, among other issues, is working to resolve the Greater Seattle region’s own housing challenges.

Gregoire noted that Everett and Snohomish County share with Seattle and King County many of the same pressures on housing affordablility and lagging stock of housing, particularly for middle-income families.

In Everett, since 1990, while the median income level has increased 92 percent, median housing prices have increased by 173 percent and median rental costs have increased 162 percent, forcing middle-income employees out of the communities in which they work and into longer commutes.

Typically, the types of workers earning middle-income wages — what has often been called family-wage jobs — include health care workers, firefighters, police officers and other front-line workers, building trades workers and educators, “the heart and soul of our communities,” Gregoire said.

As a result of the exodus of those families, she said, public education suffers, community safety is compromised, traffic congestion worsens, homelessness increases, socioeconomic diversity declines and the region’s economic growth slows.

Using the impact to public education as an example, Gregoire said, for teachers to be forced out of the community by the unaffordable cost of housing, it means fewer teachers can stay after school to help students, advise clubs or coach sports. And the loss of middle-income families can eventually result in a decline in school enrollment.

San Jose, Calif., provides a case study. “Because of this lack of affordability, so many (teachers) have left that area, they had to close down three elementary schools, with more to come. If we stay on this course, there’s no reason to assume that the same outcome won’t happen to us,” she said.

The same constraints are forcing longer commutes on firefighters, police officers, hospital staff, utility workers and others whose jobs often depend on their quick availability during a crisis.

“What is happening is obvious: We’re lacking affordability and compromising our quality of life because we’re on long commutes, we’re diminishing our air quality and we’re creating financial insecurity,” Gregoire said.

Builders have good financial incentives to build for higher-income homeowners; while government and nonprofit agencies are working to get lower-income housing built. For King County, the governor said, higher-end housing comprises about 57 percent of what was recently built, with 30 percent of construction intended for lower-income residents. Housing for middle-income families made up only 12 percent of the market.

Information from the U.S. Census Bureau and Zillow estimates that the median income necessary to cover the rent for a new apartment is currently $2,800 a month in the Puget Sound region, but most middle-income households can afford only between $1,300 to $2,700 a month, if families stick to the recommendation of spending no more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

Closing that gap, Gregoire said, will require lowering the costs for property, financing and construction. Addressing a range of public-private initiatives — increasing density through changes to zoning, encouraging transit-oriented development, providing below-market loans, extending housing tax incentives, streamlining permitting, reducing parking requirements along transit corridors and supporting construction and technology innovations — all can add up to reduce rent or mortgage payments enough to make an apartment or home affordable to a teacher, nurse or police officer.

But it will require doing things differently than we have done and accepting change.

That resistance to change is nothing new when we consider current conceptions of neighborhoods and homes.

Most recently, Housing Hope proposed the construction of 44 units of housing — a mix of single-family homes and apartments — on three acres of land near Sequoia High School, intended primarily for homeless students at the alternative high school.

The project, designed with the consultation of neighbors, was of relatively low density and offered quality construction that would have fit in architecturally with the neighborhood and — importantly — would have filled a dire need to address a large population of homeless students in Everett. Yet the project was opposed by some, and its consideration was delayed and ultimately rejected by the Everett City Council.

The project was intended to fill a need for low-income families, but it’s not difficult to see similar objections raised again if apartments or other housing are proposed that strays from neighborhood norms.

“We have to embrace change,” Gregoire said. “If we fail, the outcome is not a community we want to live in.”

Making a success of rethinking housing in Everett — and avoiding the potential for the city’s decline by pricing out those vital to its community — should begin with discussions of what residents want to see, what they are willing to accept and how to make change work.

Rethink Housing forums

The City of Everett’s Rethink Housing sessions continue through the coming months. Among scheduled events online:

A virtual chat session is scheduled for 1 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 12, inviting members of the public to share thoughts and ideas about the city’s housing policies. A second chat session is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 28

Nan Roman, chief executive of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, will speak in an online forum at 2:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 14.

A full listing of events is available at EverettWa.gov.

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