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March 2020

County Assessor Wilson discusses housing crises with Realtors

March 6, 2020

When King County Assessor John Wilson joined a meeting of the Government Affairs Committee at Seattle King County Realtors last month, he opened his remarks with a discussion on homelessness.

"I don't buy that Seattle is dying," he stated while acknowledging citizen concerns on expenditures for homelessness. He called the issue a "moral test for all of us," then asked, "Will we as a region step up?" He said the homelessness issue has similarities to Lake Washington pollution, which taxpayers ultimately helped solve by passing Forward Thrust.

Citing surveys that indicate there are 12,000 experiencing homelessness in King County (and even more are unsheltered, such as those living in cars), Wilson told the Realtors, "I would suggest it is time for another Forward Thrust but with a focus on housing."

Wilson also emphasized the need for more housing across the spectrum, and outlined a four-part solution:

  1. Increase supply, with all types of housing so there are more choices.
  2. Increase funding to help those haunted by mental illness and addiction to help them break the cycle.
  3. Restore funding to public safety.
  4. Put people to work. While we have a full employment economy, we can help those not employed or under employed.

Thinking outside the box, Wilson suggested other ways to increase housing supply, ranging from eliminating softwood tariffs to repurposing big box retail stores that have closed. "We've identified scores of properties, including some that is publicly held," he said.

Noting research that indicates more than 240,000 units of housing are needed by 2030, Wilson said that's probably not enough, but we need to speed up how we build housing. "We should probably add 300,000 units, or 10,000 per year, in order to accommodate the estimated 1.8 million more people that will live in King County by 2050."

To achieve that goal, the county may sell surplus public land and is working with Blokables, which builds vertically integrated, affordable, connected housing. (In 2018, the Seattle startup delivered a model unit as part of a larger housing project in Edmonds, but has been focused on refining its business model that integrates design, planning, permitting, almost complete off-site manufacturing, delivery, onsite construction, and ongoing operation support.)

Wilson also told his audience, "We need to be smarter about density and how we promote transit-oriented development." He cited Vancouver, B.C. as an example, commenting, "You can almost identify transit stations by nearby high rises." He also noted the Spring District in Bellevue "has got it right," but it is an exception.

Housing development also needs to be mindful of equity and social services, Wilson stated.

Turning to taxes, Wilson said high taxes have driven down the homeownership rate among minorities. The rate for African Americans has plummeted from around 60% to 24%.

Among seniors, he said "high taxes are haunting them." He noted his office went to Olympia to expand exemptions for seniors and others. Thanks in part to those efforts state law provides a tax benefit program that includes property tax exemptions and property tax deferrals, for senior citizens, disabled persons, and veterans. Eligible homeowners can apply online.

Additionally, Wilson believes new ways for seniors to keep their home need to be identified, including building new stock that allows them to downsize. As an example, he said allowing ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units) could mean the seniors could occupy it, and their primary home would become the rental.

"We ought to encourage ownership. It's been a lifesaver for our family. It has helped fund four college tuitions," Wilson told the Realtors, adding, "We also need to find more creative ways to help people pull together a down payment."

When asked about eliminating single family zoning, the assessor said he disagrees with that approach, saying "single family helps preserve the character of our neighborhoods. There are smarter ways."

Wilson, a resident of the Roosevelt neighborhood in Seattle, drew applause when he said, "homeownership is the best way to fix rent control." His call for streamlining permitting processes also resonated with the committee members.

Wilson favors public-private partnerships that involve business leaders in finding solutions. "Rather than demonize, let's tap their intellectual and financial capital."

"We need to act like we have a housing emergency," remarked Wilson while noting some employers have trouble recruiting because people can't find or afford a place to live.

Quoting attorney-author Roger Fulghum, Wilson concluded his comments with "It doesn't matter what you say you believe - it only matters what you do."

What we need to do, he stressed, is create places that everyone can call home.