A construction worker caulks siding on a townhouse at The Towns at Riverfront housing development in Everett in October, 2017. (Kevin Clark / The Herald file photo)

A construction worker caulks siding on a townhouse at The Towns at Riverfront housing development in Everett in October, 2017. (Kevin Clark / The Herald file photo)

Editorial: How do we put housing within reach of everyone?

A Herald Forum panel discussion considered the challenges and solutions for affordable housing.

By The Herald Editorial Board

To borrow from a candidate for New York’s governor in 2010, “The rent is too damn high.”

What was true in New York then, remains true today in Snohomish County, Washington state and elsewhere in the U.S.: The rent — and mortgages — are too damn high.

Clearly, with nearly half of Washington state households having to pay more than 30 percent of income for rent or mortgage payments — the level deemed “affordable” for housing — those costs are not only high but a burden to paying other expenses.

A panel discussion Thursday sponsored by The Daily Herald centered on the challenges in providing necessary assistance and in building an ample stock of housing that can help keep rents and mortgages affordable. As well, the discussion outlined policies and efforts being employed to address assistance and the need for additional housing and proposals for future legislation and programs.

The Herald Forum panel included Duane Leonard, executive director of the Housing Authority of Snohomish County; Donna Moulton, chief executive for the nonprofit Housing Hope and HopeWorks; Jerry Hall, executive director of the Master Builders of King and Snohomish Counties; and Strom Peterson, Snohomish County council member, state representative for the 21st Legislative District and chair of the House Housing Committee.

Issues of affordability can be difficult to see, said Leonard, noting the wide gap in incomes in Snohomish County and the rest of the state. Even as the economy improves and unemployment remains low, many families are struggling to make rent or mortgage payments while affording other necessities. The statistic that jumps out at him, Leonard said, is that 43 percent of the school children in Snohomish County’s 15 school districts qualify for free or reduced lunches.

“And yet people say ‘Well, I just don’t see the problem.’ You know, they see the homelessness problem. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. Affordable housing “is a much, much bigger problem.”

Donna Moulton, the chief executive of Housing Hope, which builds and manages affordable housing for qualified recipients, says the nonprofit sees housing as a human right. It has built and manages some 600 units of housing throughout the county, works with families in sweat-equity homeownership programs and also runs its HopeWorks job-skills training program.

“And we’re really proud to be able to do that,” she said. “Unfortunately, when we do that at a clip of about 50 to 60 units a year, we’re not making a very big dent in the problem.”

What’s complicating the efforts for both the housing authority and nonprofits such as Housing Hope, Leonard and Moulton said, are a shortage of political will to make needed policy changes, opposition from the public and local governments to specific housing proposals and a shortage of financial investments in housing.

Leonard does see nimbyism as a significant hurdle to providing more affordable housing, noting past opposition to specific projects in Everett, including a supportive housing complex, Clare’s Place, which ultimately was built.

“The citizenry came out and brought their pitchforks and went to city council meetings and it was all over the newspaper for weeks and weeks and weeks at a time,” he said. “Now that the building is built, what do you hear? Nothing, it’s just become a regular part of the fabric of the community. None of the fears that were generated and talked about were realized.”

Neighborhood and city council opposition, however, did stop a Housing Hope project that would have built 44 multifamily units near Sequoia High School, specifically for homeless students and their families.

However, there are investments and changes to law that are moving forward and providing hope.

Peterson outlined some of the legislation that has been adopted this year and in previous years that intends to provide more affordable housing and foster construction of a full range of housing that can help keep rents and mortgages affordable.

Among legislation now adopted and being implemented, he said, were changes that allow duplexes and multiplex housing in cities’ single-family residential zones; streamlining of permitting; and an investment of $800,000 over the two-year budget for the state’s Housing Trust Fund, which provides grants to build multi-family rental housing, assistance to first-time homebuyers and other programs.

Still, he admits, the progress is slow.

“We’re making headway, but it is not happening fast enough and it’s not happening big time,” Peterson said.

That effort to encourage more multifamily housing is working against the last 15 years of federal tax policy, he said, which has aided home-buyers of single-family residences but discouraged investments in more affordable multifamily housing options.

Recent figures from the state Economic and Revenue Forecast Council showed that permits for multifamily housing dropped by about 7,000 units between April and June of this year, while permits for single-family homes increased by 4,600 units, the Washington State Standard reported Tuesday. The state Department of Commerce has previously reported that the state will need 1.1 million housing units built in the next 20 years; of that nearly 800,000 will need to be apartments and other multifamily housing.

“There is a huge portion of our population that is never going to be in that homeownership market,” Peterson said. “We need to make sure that we have the supports and the subsidies set aside to make sure that we’re keeping people in housing.”

Yet, the changes made to permitting and zoning, said Hall, with the Master Builders — which represents those holding the hammers that will build that housing — offers promise.

“That’s something exciting. It provides opportunity to actually build for more density than we have had previously,” Hall said, noting that the changes will make it possible to build housing where it previously wasn’t zoned.

As well, efforts to shorten the timeline for permits are key to building housing more quickly, Hall said.

“What I hear most frequently from the builders within our organization — and we have 2,500 members — is that from the time they purchase the land to the time that they hand someone keys is four years. Just simply the permitting takes two years,” Hall said. “So we’re eager to see what happens with the streamlining of the permitting processes.”

Beyond the issues of housing supply, there was also discussion of the costs for rental housing. While proposed this year, legislation that sought to cap increases in rent did not advance. But Peterson said he intends to bring the issue back for further consideration next year.

Yet, there’s concern, Hall said, that such limits, termed rent stabilization, could actually discourage some from offering homes for rent, working against affordability.

“I think our organization would say, ‘Strom, let’s go have a beer.’” Hall said. “We really see that the solution is really more about making sure there is supply. Supply, supply, supply. We see that that’s a better long-term solution.”

If, as Moulton and Housing Hope maintain, housing is a right for all, that implies a responsibility for government, industry and the community to provide ample opportunities to fulfill that right.

That requires assessing the existing conditions that work against affordability, adopting policy that makes the necessary changes, making the investments for construction and providing the support that welcomes new families into the neighborhood.

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