By The Herald Editorial Board
There isn’t anyone in Snohomish County who doesn’t deal with some aspect of the affordable housing crisis in their daily lives.
Certainly this includes those who are homeless or live with insecure housing. And even for those who do have stable housing, a full third of those in the county are having to spend more than 30 percent of their incomes on rent or mortgage and utilities.
Yet even those who have a home and sufficient income still live with the effects of the crisis.
With a growing population and a tighter housing supply, home values have increased, which has contributed to rising payments for property taxes, which in turn has fueled anti-tax sentiment that has made it difficult for school and other districts to pass the bonds and levies they need to serve their communities.
That same tight housing market also is driving many to seek homes and apartments farther from their jobs, adding to the crush of traffic on interstates, highways and transit that increases the demand for spending on transportation infrastructure and its costs to taxpayers.
The encouraging news is that there are solutions.
Following nearly a year of work, the Housing Affordability Regional Taskforce — a collaborative effort among local governments, community members, nonprofits and others — last month released its five-year action plan to address the shortage of housing throughout Snohomish County and ensure that as the county and its communities continue to grow there can be housing sufficient to meet those communities’ needs.
Called together last May by County Executive Dave Somers, the HART effort has produced a report that identifies many of the contributing factors in the housing crisis and outlines a series of responses, beginning with several “early action” items, work on which has already begun, and then 37 additional efforts for further consideration.
“In looking where the county’s headed and our desire to grow the economy and keep our employers here, grow aerospace and other high-tech jobs, housing is a key issue with retaining good employees,” Somers said in an interview last week.
The county can expect its population to grow by 26 percent and exceed 1 million people in the next 20 years. Adding nearly 240,000 people to the current population of about 819,000 will be like making room for two cities the size of Everett in the county.
But since the Great Recession in 2008, housing construction hasn’t kept pace with the county’s population growth, the HART report finds. Between 2016 and 2018, the number of housing units built was 61 percent less than the growth in households in the county. That scarcity, not surprisingly, has driven up the cost of housing, both rents and mortgages.
The market rate for a two-bedroom apartment in the county is $1,899 for rent and utilities, a cost that would — in order not to pay more than 30 percent of household income on housing — require a family to make $76,000 a year ($36.52 an hour) which would equal three full-time jobs earning a $12-an-hour minimum wage.
To have any hope of keeping rents and mortgages affordable and meet the needs of population growth, the county will have to see more than 125,000 housing units built between now and 2040, more than 6,500 a year. Even coming close to that rate of construction will require many communities and neighborhoods to adapt to higher housing densities, incentives and a streamlined process to encourage housing development and cooperative efforts among public, private and nonprofit groups.
Among the eight early action items outlined, the report recommends efforts that:
Encourage cities to enter into cooperative agreements with the Housing Authority of Snohomish County and the Everett Housing Authority;
Take advantage of state legislation passed last year to shift a portion of the state’s sales tax revenue to local governments for use in grants for affordable housing projects and related programs;
Lobby for state and national legislation that will encourage construction and funding, such as a proposal now in Congress to extend the federal Housing Trust Fund that has provided about $1 billion to state housing agencies since it began in 2016; and
Engage the private sector, in particular major employers such as Microsoft and Boeing, to assist in affordable housing solutions.
One tool that was discussed by HART’s members but was not included as a recommendation was a housing levy, which could have funded programs through an addition to the property tax. That option had support among housing suppliers and builders, but not among many local governments, Somers said. Still, the subject may return for further debate later.
“There’s a certain segment of housing that will only be built if it is subsidized. The market will not build it, because there’s not the return,” Somers said. “But we’ll have to consider it at some point,” perhaps after progress on other recommendations.
To ensure that the work outlined in the five-year plan actually moves ahead during the next five years, Somers said he is in talks with Snohomish County Tomorrow — a cooperative forum of the county, cities and the Tulalip Tribes — to take on leadership of the HART report’s recommendations, a group better suited to follow up with the cities and the county on their tasks and responsibilities.
Among the more important recommendations in the report, it advises community conversations about density and other issues. Residents, businesses and community groups throughout the county will be needed for their guidance and discussion.
Regardless of income level and where and how we live, we’re in this together, which means we’ll need to resolve it together.
The Herald has scheduled a 90-minute panel discussion from 7 to 8:30 p.m., March 23 at the Everett School District’s Community Resource Center, Hearing Rooms A&B on homelessness, affordable housing and the HART report. The discussion is open to the public and will include representatives from the task force, the building industry, nonprofits and others.