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July 2018

HIB panelists ponder solutions for housing supply and affordability crisis

Housing Issues Briefing meeting photosFour panelists and moderator Shane Davies, 2018 president of Seattle King County REALTORS®, joined with 100 other elected officials, candidates for public office, policymakers, and Realtors to discuss housing policies and "common sense" ideas for restoring affordability in preparation for 1.8 million new residents.

Now in its 24th year, this year's annual Housing Issues Briefing (HIB) focused on what Davies described was "an enormous housing supply and affordability crisis that has become an undeniable emergency." The "law of supply and demand" cannot be repealed, Davies stated, adding, "It is at the core of the crisis."

Joining him to tackle that topic were:

  • Joe Fain, state senator for the 47th legislative district and member of the Ways and Means, Rules, and Health & Long Term Care committees;
  • Margaret Morales, senior research associate at the Sightline Institute, an independent, nonprofit research and communications center. Her work on its Housing and Urbanism Team focuses on state and local policy measures to boost housing diversity in the Seattle area.
  • Guy Palumbo, state senator for the 1st legislative district covering portions of King and Snohomish counties.  He is vice chair on the Higher Education & Workforce Development Committee, the Local Government Committee, and the Energy, Environment & Technology Committee, and is a member of the Ways & Means Committee.
  • Tana Senn, state representative for the 41st legislative district and member of the Appropriations and Education committees. She also serves as vice chair of the Early Learning and Human Services Committee.

Davies, the owner of Windermere Real Estate/Maple Valley, opened the discussion with some "state of the market" statistics, emphasizing fixing the housing shortage is the biggest challenge elected officials will face. "Here in King County, and in much of the state, it feels like a whole generation of families are not only losing hope, but also losing access to the American Dream - faster than you can pass a head tax," he told the audience.

Davies also outlined some of the consequences of "driving to qualify," saying "worst of all, longer commutes erode our quality of life by robbing us of time with family and community."

The ensuing discussion covered buildable lands, condominium liability reform, minimum densities, and some lessons from other cities' solutions.

Turning to Sen. Palumbo, the moderator asked him about Senate Bill 6077, including its primary objective and whether he, as prime sponsor, planned to reintroduce it or other housing proposals next session. (SB 6077 would have set minimum density standards for comprehensive plans adopted by cities under GMA.)

Sen. Palumbo confirmed he intends to reintroduce that bill after "tweaking" it, confessing he did not anticipate the level of NIMBYism that occurred. Now, he believes, "we're at a unique point in time with people on the left and right saying the same thing" about the severity of the housing crisis. Housing will be a big issue in the long session, he commented.

Palumbo also commented on the apparent disconnect between growth and infrastructure. In Seattle, he noted, two-thirds of the land mass is zoned single family. Off Highway 99, for example, there is single family zoning next to transit. "That makes no sense," he remarked.

Panelist Margaret Morales was asked to explain the importance of condominiums, comparing the approach in Vancouver, BC with what she has observed in the Central Puget Sound region.

As a preface to her reply, Morales polled the audience, asking how many lived in a condo (very few), then asked how many might live in a condo in the future (significantly more raised their hands).

This region has a "shockingly low" supply of condos compared to Vancouver, stated Morales as she showed a series of slides to illustrate her point. "Condos consistently account for over half of Vancouver's housing starts," she emphasized.

Condos offer several benefits, according to Morales, including:

  1. Condos broaden the price entry point for homeownership since this housing type typically sells for about two-thirds the cost of a house;
  2. Condos meet an ownership niche, and could bring relief to boomers and millennials;
  3. Condos are a green housing option because multi-family dwellings tend to be more energy efficient than single family homes.

Morales also referenced an ambitious zoning bill proposed earlier this year in California (SB 827), which would have required cities in that state to permit midrise apartment construction around high-frequency transit stops.

In an editorial about the failure of the bill to clear its first committee hearing, the LA Times suggested it "immediately became a lightning rod because it so dramatically upended local control over housing and development decisions."

As an advocate for updating the state's Condo Act, Morales suggested how we plan is at the nexus of policy, economics and social sustainability. California's experience with SB 827 could be a model for discussion on housing policy at the state level.

Another piece of legislation was the basis of questions for panelist Senn, who was prime sponsor of HB 2831, which offered some condominium liability reform. Although that proposal, based on existing Colorado law, had strong bi-partisan support from members of the House Judiciary Committee, it failed to receive a floor vote in the house.

Rep. Senn said the bill she proposed last session is not a partisan issue - it's to address stability of families and make sure our region is affordable to all. Mentioning personal anecdotes on challenges people she knows have encountered, Senn stressed the need to create a cycle of housing. "We need to build affordable, work force housing, housing for people who want to downsize, and housing that provides stability for families."

Senn also advocates for the "right to cure." If there is a problem with construction, the builder should fix it, she explained. She also believes builders need access to insurance that isn't as onerous and expensive as what is currently available.

Davies then asked the fourth panelist, Sen. Fain, to discuss the possibility of new GMA mandates, offering up a list of 11 possibilities.

Fain described SB 5254, of which he was the original prime sponsor, a "great success," even though it may have been esoteric for those not familiar with buildable lands. "Buildable lands inventory is supposed to inform developers and others, but in reality they may not be buildable at all. For many communities, it's been a useless document," he remarked.

Fain was also critical of some transit solutions, saying they aren't workable for many, citing the lack of parking at light rail stations. "On the infrastructure front, many meandering technologies have been developed," adding, "We need to invest in solutions people want." Among examples he listed were fast technologies, dedicated throughways, and construction of park & ride facilities.

Now, Fain said, stakeholder groups are evaluating the measure to not only identify buildable lands, but to also address impediments, such as services needed and concurrency.

"We absolutely need more multi-family," he agreed.

Following remarks by panelists in response to the moderator's questions, audience members were invited to asked questions.

Housing Issues Briefing presentation slides