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October 2015

400 attend housing summit to take fresh look at housing and transportation needs

2015 Housing Summit"You should be building homes, not processing paper," King County Executive Dow Constantine told the audience during a presentation at the 2015 Housing Summit. The event, which focused on meeting housing targets through investments in transportation, was a presentation of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties.

Joining the county executive as speakers were Josh Brown, executive director of the Puget Sound Regional Council; Matthew Gardner, Windermere chief economist, and five panelists. Shannon Affholter, executive director of the builder association, served as moderator.

To open the discussion, County Executive Constantine highlighted some of his office's reforms to the permitting process (including renaming the agency that oversees the permitting process). In doing so, he stated the process should not unnecessarily add to the cost of a home.

By year's end, he said builders will be able to use an online application, pay fees with a credit card, and know which inspector is assigned to their project. He expects the county's Department of Permitting & Environmental Review will join 15 other jurisdictions as users of  MyBuildingPermit.com, a one-stop, easy-to-use portal for checking the status of permits.

Noting changes in his own West Seattle neighborhood's demographics, the county executive commended builders to respond to the demand for different housing products. By concentrating job growth within the urban boundaries and in cities, and "filling in and building up," he believes planners can better protect forests and farmlands.

"The key is infrastructure investments," emphasized Constantine, who also chairs the Sound Transit Board.

Noting we can't dwell on the past, the county executive nevertheless lamented the failure to build light rail with federal dollars.

"We haven't kept up with the need to move people." Unlike driving, light rail offers certainty and greater capacity, he stressed, underscoring his point with the statistic that a four-car passenger train with one driver can carry 800 people. The forthcoming addition of 30 miles of rail will help alleviate congestion by removing both car and bus trips from the highways, he added.

Transit centers offer a big opportunity for housing, he told the audience. Transit-oriented developments (TODs) can offer a mix of buildings in walkable neighborhoods with easy access to public transit. He mentioned Auburn and Burien as areas that are being transformed by TODs.

Constantine urged builders in the audience to provide a range of housing choices to serve a million new residents and shifting demographics. "We have to get people and freight moving again and protect the things that brought us here in the first place."

Picking up on that theme was Josh Brown, executive director of the Puget Sound Regional Council, which develops policies and coordinates decisions about regional growth and transportation planning in King, Pierce, Snohomish and Kitsap counties.

Brown, a former Kitsap County Commissioner and commercial real estate broker, discussed findings from recent studies undertaken by PSRC, and current efforts to integrate the region's transit agencies in order to provide a higher performing system. He also highlighted elements of both recently approved and forthcoming transportation funding packages for various modes of transportation, including roads, ferries, transit and trails.

Not surprisingly, transportation is a big concern for local residents, with 47 percent citing it as the most important problem facing the region, according to a recent survey. "Everything else is in single digits," Brown reported.

Housing affordability and commute times are priorities - and a challenge -- given the region's robust job growth. Nearly eight of every 10 survey respondents say congestion is a serious or critical problem.

In its VISION 2040 report, PSRC concluded a variety of home choices is an imperative. "The region's supply of homes should serve all economic segments of the population. It should provide residences that are safe and healthy, attractive, and close to jobs, shopping, and other amenities," the report states.

Many of the region's more affordable homes are not close to job centers, Brown reminded the audience.

The PSRC leader said jurisdictions will need to work proactively to increase the supply of homes.

As stated in the VISION 2040 report, "Housing needs addressed in local plans must be coordinated with land use, transportation, capital facilities and economic development. This is key for addressing better connections between where jobs and residences are located, including workforce homes." New approaches for increasing the supply of housing should be considered, and approval processes may need to be revised to better facilitate the production of new units, the authors added.

On the transportation front, VISION 2040 provides a framework for long-range transportation planning in the region by integrating planning for freight, ferries, roads, transit, bicycling, and walking. Brown showed maps and graphs to illustrate the priority for transportation investments that serve centers and compact urban communities.

Economist Matthew Gardner from Windermere Real Estate discussed the region's job recovery ("in full swing") and the implications for housing. In referencing King County's Buildable Lands Report, Gardner said he "has issues with it," noting some of them.
To frame his remarks, Gardner outlined some key facts:

  1. Lot supply is getting constrained;  (some production builders who once built 2,000-3,000 homes are now doing five- and six-home short plats);
  2. Finished lot values have risen by 51% over the past five years.
  3. Housing affordability has become an issue again.
  4. We are creating bedroom communities  (people live where they can afford to live)
  5. Commute times continue to rise (ours is 7th worst in the U.S.)

"All forecasts show an economy which should continue to expand for the foreseeable future," Gardner said, adding such growth will generate substantial demand for housing.

During his presentation, Gardner, the co-chair of the Research Committee for the Washington Center for Real Estate Research, also discussed migration patterns, permit activity, housing affordability, and the ratios of home prices and incomes.

People here are being priced out of homeownership and becoming renters, he suggested, adding, "Builders of apartments are doing a happy dance now."  Gardner also noted, "It's never been affordable for first-time buyers in King County. "

The economist acknowledged some improvements in transit, but said "we're not there yet." He also noted the irony of "urban containment" policies that are designed to prevent sprawl but may actually be accelerating it.

While there are no easy solutions, Gardner advocated changing the way supply is assessed, reevaluating zoning, and continuing to grow mass transit while also recognizing many residents have never used a bus, and never intend to. He called the Growth Management Act an "important, but outdated tool."

"There are still a lot of unaddressed issues," Gardner said in summarizing, adding, "They are solvable, but we are perhaps paying too much attention to certain sections."

To conclude the summit, the MBA assembled a panel to discuss how transportation investments could help facilitate growth and meet housing needs, the impacts of concurrency on projects, and how transportation influences homebuyers' decision making.

Panelists included Suzette Cooke, mayor of Kent, Edward Koltonowski, president of Gibson Traffic Consultants, Inc.; Peter Orser, director of the Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies at the University of Washington; Judy Clibborn, State Representative from the 41st District and chair of the House Transportation Committee; and Gloria Hirashima, chief administrative officer with the City of Marysville.

Asked if she had advice for homebuilders, Mayor Cooke urged them to "look at the whole picture," noting transportation investments in both "spines and nodes" of activity. People want a sense of neighborhood, a positive sense of place and a welcoming location, she reminded the audience. "Plan around future nodes of activity, not just what exists today. "

When moderator Shannon Affholter invited the audience to ask questions, one participant asked at what point growth in the Puget Sound region has outgrown GMA. "When it hits $650,000 in King County," replied Orser, referring to the median price of a home.

Panelists were also asked about flaws in the Buildable Lands report.

"We can't manage our way through the explosive growth," Orser answered. "We need to get honest with ourselves on concurrency and plan appropriately. Maybe it's changing the line, maybe it's infrastructure," he suggested, drawing applause.

At the conclusion of the Summit, Affholter announced a new project and study the MBA was undertaking with partners in the planning community. The goal is to better understand and connect transportation and land supply issues. "If we can learn better how to make transportation support our housing needs here in the Puget Sound region, then we can grow better, smarter and build communities we can all be proud of."

The Master Builders Association, with 2,800 members, is the nation's largest local homebuilders association.