SUMMARY OF PART ONE
In Part One of this series, we looked at the problem of affordable housing in Skagit County. We saw that wages are not keeping up with market-rate home prices.
In addition, the rental vacancy rate is less than 1% and the average (median) rent is inching up to $1,400/month. There is simply not enough affordable rental housing for the hard-working families in our county.
We also saw how the proposed comprehensive plan amendment to create “fully contained communities” (“FCCs”) fails to address the real need for housing. The 4,000 new homes that developers propose building will cost too much for most Skagitonians. FCCs will likely become bedroom communities for commuters pushed out of the Seattle housing market instead.
In crafting solutions to meet the need for affordable housing in our county, we should do this while maintaining the character of Skagit County. By taking charge of the problem, we have the ability to preserve what we love about Skagit County while responding to the very real needs of the people who live here.
AFFORDABLE HOUSING STRATEGIES FOR SKAGIT
What affordable housing strategies are in keeping with the character of our county? What should be our guiding principles?
1) First, let’s acknowledge that massive housing developments would totally alter the character of Skagit County; Skagit is a place with farms, small cities, rural lifestyles, and a natural environment worth preserving.
Moreover, take a look around at the housing that exists today – much of it is modest and small-scale. Certainly there are new houses of 3,500 square feet or more; and million dollar plus homes are on the market; there will always be houses for the well-to-do. But the predominance of smaller homes is testament to the fact that families with children can and have lived in square footage commonplace in houses built in the 1950s and 1960s.
Conclusion: A Skagit-sized solution emphasizes modest and small-scale housing.
2) Second, we should look to recent history and admit that private developers see no profit in modest and small-scale housing. If they did, that is what new housing would look like in Skagit. Instead, developers prefer to work with large plats for hundreds (if not thousands) of large houses, built with exemptions from parking and open space requirements so that more houses can be squeezed onto the available land. This is not surprising; private builders are running a business and need to make a profit. However, this approach doesn’t address the housing needs of the people who live and work in Skagit County.
Conclusion: Local government needs to step in and facilitate alternative ways of creating new and affordable housing because the private sector is simply not meeting the challenge.
3) The housing crisis knows no boundaries. Cities and towns have accepted the lion’s share of new development but that does not make affordable housing their problem. All of us live in the county, even if we also live in cities or towns.
Conclusion: City residents are county residents, too; therefore the County government should participate in efforts to create affordable housing whether that is in cities and towns or in the rural areas.
THE HOUSING CONTINUUM
Housing advocates often talk about the “housing continuum.” This notion describes the variety of housing that should exist for the span of incomes and needs of the population, to allow movement between types of housing. At one end of the continuum are shelters and supported housing. On the other end, there are high-priced single-family homes. In between are affordable rental housing and affordable owner-occupied housing.
To address only one end of the continuum is to fail the community as a whole. Homelessness is a stark problem but only creating shelters means that there will be no place for people to move when they are back on their feet. Expecting people to move from homelessness to market-rate housing is hopelessly unrealistic, particularly in a county where the median home price is $400,000 and the vacancy rate for rental housing is less than 1%.
Two additional parts of the continuum require local government to get actively involved: affordable rental housing and affordable home ownership. The Skagit Council Of Governments (SCOG) 2017 report indicated that, in addition to the approximately 30% of the population for whom rental housing is the only affordable option, another 20% can afford some form of home ownership, but at a moderate cost. Since the private sector has not found profit in either of these markets, local government needs to step in and help with workable options.
First, let’s consider expanding rental housing:
INCREASE AFFORDABLE RENTAL HOUSING WITH ACCESSORY DWELLING UNITS (ADUs).
Under the Growth Management Act, local jurisdictions of sufficient size have to adopt laws allowing for accessory dwelling units on lots zoned for single-family residences. RCW 36.70A.400 and 43.63A.215. This has been done in Skagit County by all the cities and towns, and in the county by permitting the use in most rural zones. This part has been done, which is good.
ADUs are a good solution to the affordable housing needs of our county because:
- ADUs are inherently rental in nature. They must be built in conjunction with the main dwelling and cannot be subdivided off and sold. This means an ADU is a rental.
- ADUs are smaller than the main house. Usually, ADUs are limited to a percentage of the floor space of the main house and have an overall cap – often 800-900 square feet. This means ADUs are housing of a modest scale.
- ADUs are able to access utility services through service to the main dwelling. Water and sewer are the main considerations, especially in the rural areas, and these can be best provided through the utility services already in place to the main dwelling.
- Because the ADU is essentially part of the main dwelling, the owner of the main dwelling is the manager of the rental unit. This is a job, not a windfall, and the owner earns an income for his or her work, in the form of rent.
However, just making ADUs possible is not enough. There are obstacles to creating ADUs. A degree of planning sophistication is needed to navigate the city or county requirements for an ADU; building a new ADU takes money and expertise.
In fact, many future ADU owners will need assistance to get going. The requirements can be daunting. To help out homeowners:
The County should establish an office dedicated to assisting home owners in the creation of ADUs.
This office should do at least five things:
- Assist the homeowners in developing a site plan which conforms to the city or county requirements which apply to their project.
- Provide access to resources to assist the homeowner in meeting the requirements for water and sewer, including expanding existing services, conservation measures, alternatives to traditional methods, and use-monitoring systems.
- Establishment of a small-works roster of contractors and other tradespeople trained and certified to provide necessary carpentry, electrical, plumbing and similar services to build and maintain ADUs. (This has the added benefit of creating new jobs.)
- A fee-for-service program available to screen applicants and owners, including credit and criminal records checks; and to help mediate any problems between tenants and landlords.
- A no-interest loan program for homeowners agreeing to a covenant restricting rental to low income tenants.
While such an office will require some funding, it would be far less expensive to assist homeowners in creating ADUs than to build the same number of affordable-housing units with public money. In addition, there are possible sources for funding for an affordable rental project: a local affordable-housing levy (such as recently passed in Anacortes); and the State Housing Trust Fund (See Note). Other private and public sources may also be tapped. Partnerships with affordable housing non-profits can leverage the experience of dedicated housing advocates as well.
This is not the only affordable rental strategy that might be adopted, but it is one that provides opportunities for both property owners and tenants at a scale that maintains Skagit County’s character.
Watch for Part Three: Affordable Owner-Occupied Housing
Note: the state legislature concurs that ADUs are a good way to create more affordable housing. There is legislation pending before the legislature to streamline the requirements for ADUs: SHB1797 expands the use of ADUS as a strategy by reducing off-street parking and lot-size requirements, assessing utility fees proportionate to the actual burden posed by an ADU, and creating greater design flexibility.
Margery Hite, a retired lawyer, served as a lawyer to county and city governments. She also served as the attorney member on a state growth management hearings board, and as an executive director for Snohomish County. She is now retired to a small farm in Bow where she raises dairy sheep and makes her own cheese.