First Steps to Fix Skagit County’s Housing Crisis

By John Doyle

Affordable housing has become a core economic issue for communities throughout our country. For Washington State (and many other communities), it is not a singular issue and has many complex elements.

There are property ownership and renter interests; urban and rural; multifamily and single family; mixed use and single use zoning; seasonal farmworker housing; and transitional housing. These are not all the challenges, but are examples of the diversity of interests that are involved. Each local community faces several, if not, all of these challenges.

Each of the issues cited above have unique elements and milestones. It is critical that counties identify their needs clearly and establish measurable policy objectives for housing at various income levels. We are not all effected equally by the affordability issue. What is a costly inconvenience for middle and upper income levels may lead to homelessness for others.

In light of the current lack of affordable housing in Skagit, there is one policy area that must be established before it becomes too late. That is maintaining an affordable housing inventory for each sector of our population. Outside of urban high density low-come housing, this has not been a consideration for most communities. In fact, the path to middle class wealth has been the increasing property value of the family residence.

Several cities and towns in Skagit County have formed partnerships to address the needs of some population sectors, but specific objectives and long-term inventory goals have not been adequately addressed. Partnerships, like those with organizations such as Skagit Home Trust and Habitat for Humanity, are models for local communities, but only address a narrow spectrum of the problems we face. However, these models are intended to establish a long-term inventory of homes available to people and families of lower income levels. Local governments at all levels in Skagit have not yet established the mechanisms or target inventories for the various income groups.

There are new legislative bills and administrative codes that give excellent tools to local governments to take action on these issues. The Association of Washington Cities (AWC) and the Municipal Research Services Center (MRSC) have developed a Tool Kit for local governments to implement effective affordable housing strategies.

Some legislative actions to assist local governments are:
HB 2263 – A sales tax allowance for affordable housing
HB 1406 – A sales tax revenues sharing opportunity for county and municipal governments for affordable housing
HB 2382 – Allocation of surplus public lands for affordable housing

Administrative Code provisions:
RCW 84.52.105 – Property tax provision for low income housing
RCW 39.33.015 – Transfer, lease or disposal of surplus public lands for affordable housing

The tools are being made available for local governments. It’s time for Skagit County to implement and establish inventories of affordable housing. The old model relied on a constant supply of lower cost housing and relatively stable property values. We are reaching the limits of land availability for affordable housing. We cannot afford to have all housing subject to market pressures that drive up values. We have the tools. Use them.

John Doyle is a retired La Conner Town Administrator and Planning Director. John has held a variety of State and Local management positions with an emphasis on land use, environmental and energy policy.

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