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April 2013

Builders solutions to buildable land shortage

NWREporter April 2013

By NWREporter

April 2013

Governments in King and Snohomish counties need to remove barriers that contribute to a shortage of buildable land or risk harming the local economy and quality of life, contends a builders' group.

In an issue paper subtitled "Finding a Path Forward for Housing," the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties said disconnects exist between conclusions in buildable lands reports and builders' on-the-ground realities. Building lands reports, as required under the state Growth Management Act (GMA), maintain there is sufficient land to meet growth, yet builders say a lot-supply/buildable land shortage exists.

"One reason for the apparent shortage is that we've already exhausted the relatively easy land on which to build," the report's authors stated, adding, "In some cases, land suitable for building is scarce because it is bank-owned (i.e. property that has gone through the foreclosure process but is not back on the market) or it has been purchased by developers who are waiting for the right time to start building."

In King County, which is mostly built out, the builders report what land remains is very expensive or difficult to build on because it is significantly constrained. "Often it is environmental constraints that prevent builders and developers from proceeding because the mitigation requirements are so costly," they stated.

The paper identifies four main barriers and outlines seven solutions for accommodating growth.

The four main barriers to finding solutions to the buildable land supply shortage are:

  1. The GMA requires growth to be directed to urban areas, but many cities resist new growth and make it exceedingly difficult to provide new housing. In many cases, local governments are acting in response to neighborhood activists opposed to growth. A "Not-In-My-Back-Yard" dynamic exists in the city of Seattle as well as throughout the entire region.
  2. The Puget Sound Regional Council's (PSRC) Vision 2040 strongly discourages expansion of Urban Growth Areas (UGAs) or even building within UGAs that happen to fall outside city boundaries. The urban center concept backed by PSRC offers many benefits, the builders acknowledge, but called the fact that there is no accountability or incentives to make other changes elsewhere in the UGAs "problematic."
  3. Adding to the above challenge is the fact that countywide planning policy language supports Vision 2040 in both King and Snohomish counties.
  4. Regulations, including critical areas ordinances, shoreline management plans and floodplain rules, among others, create an added layer of no-build areas inside UGAs, further diminishing the supply of available buildable land and the builders' ability to help meet the demand for affordable housing.

Viable solutions exist, the builders believe, but it is imperative for state and local governments to make the GMA work as intended. The solutions the builders advocate include:

  1. Cities have to do their part to up-zone within their borders to achieve minimum net urban densities and accommodate new growth. "It is incumbent on us to help cities focus on the importance of accepting their share of the region's housing needs," the builders wrote in their issues paper.
  2. State leaders should provide local governments with more political backing to address neighborhood opposition to growth, which currently hampers their ability to add new housing within their borders.
  3. Land-consuming regulations must be updated to allow more flexibility for builders while still providing the necessary environmental protection. Tools offering this flexibility, such as buffer averaging in critical areas regulations, must be adopted more widely across King and Snohomish counties and their cities. "To the extent we fail to accommodate new growth in cities and UGAs, greater pressure will be put on our pristine, rural areas," the builders emphasized.
  4. Additional State Environmental Policy Act reforms are needed to help streamline the review process without compromising environmental protections.
  5. Height limits must be eased where feasible.
  6. Transportation elements of county comprehensive plans must support growth in unincorporated parts of UGAs.
  7. Local governments should consider form-based zoning codes, which regulate the forms of development in a given neighborhood, rather than the uses, as one tool for providing greater flexibility.
  8. Cities should implement faster permit approvals and other incentives for innovative housing types that help accommodate new growth, such as micro-housing.

Ultimately, the builders declared, if our housing capacity fails to meet the region's housing needs, then the laws of supply and demand tell us we run the risk of experiencing escalating home prices to a level that is simply unsustainable. "This will only further hamper the ability of families to find affordable housing near job centers, a major quality-of-life factor for our workforce. Therefore, it is absolutely critical that we advance reasonable solutions in order to ensure an adequate housing supply in King and Snohomish counties and avoid another housing price bubble."