July 17, 2017 | Cle Elum | Kittitas County Sentinel
Citizen X ~
Let’s call her Citizen X for now. She is standing in front of the Cle Elum Planning Commission at Cle Elum City Hall and possibly wondering why she feels the deep need to embarrass herself before strangers. Her voice wavers when she speaks and she occasionally holds back sobs, trying to breathe through her fear and the embarrassment of having to actually talk about her private life in a public forum.
” Editors Note: Bruce presents some creative thinking concerning the solutions to the housing issues currently before Kittitas County in the hopes that we can avoid the top-down pressures that will inevitably come from federal and state agencies.
It is not like she wants to be there. Her life, whatever preceded her entry into public discussion, was not about laying her soul bare to a bunch of people who very well might not give a damn about her personal problems or her position in society. Or worse yet may not have the power or will to address what she is talking about (her plight).
What she is talking about is this: “Why can’t a well-paid and apparently productive and sober mother of three children find a house to rent in Kittitas County at a price she can afford”?
She likes her job as a massage therapist and finds worth in her profession. By her own admission, she makes “good money”. She is a single mom with three kids to support and she’s trying to make her life work in the only way she knows possible – she guts it out. The last two houses she has been able to rent have been sold out from under her, she could not afford to buy them. There is nothing in the upper county that she can buy, rental units are so tight that the cost has escalated beyond her ability to rent and lots of places don’t like to take children. If she cannot find a place to live she will have to figure out a way to shift the cost of her kids elsewhere. That’s a euphemism for sending the kids back to the other side, and she would rather not do that.
Citizen X is representative of a group of people in Kittitas County who are not poor, are not chronically unemployed; do not derive the majority of their sustenance from public assistance. They are not bums, octomoms, drug addicts, perennial losers or welfare cheats. They are people who choose to live in an area where the kind of hyper inflated real estate costs endemic to a resort economies is driving the cost of housing out of the reach of regular working people. Her issue is affordable housing.
The immediate reasons are there for all to see and possibly require no discussion. Most people express their frustration rather coarsely. “Bunch of rich people from the west side is moving in and shoving up the costs of housing”.
But that is just another way of saying that upper Kittitas County is in the process of becoming a resort community in every sense of the term, whether codified in themed resorts like Suncadia or a result of people moving here because they like it here. No matter what the reason we run the danger of becoming just another Whistler, Aspen or Sun Valley. And as such we will share the same issues with income disparity, affordable housing, housing density, environmental mitigation for increased population densities, and a million other issues that will confront us in the future. We could learn from their experiences, maybe…
All those issues will be concentrated in the upper half of Kittitas County.
The people who are moving here are well off enough to afford a second home, and a good portion of those people are selling their west side homes in one of the most overheated housing markets in the United States for amounts they can hardly believe. They come to Kittitas County in the hopes that they will be able to enjoy, at a minimum, a range of services in support of what they believe to be the perfect mix of urban and rural living. And the commute? It’s no worse than Dallas, or LA, or Boston or Medina, wherever location from which they went to school or came.
Our question is this: “How do we attract and maintain a stable and talented work force to Kittitas County not only to provide those services but to support the businesses that will move here in the future”?
Is it wrong to make money? No. Is it wrong to try to realize your dreams for your future? No. Is it wrong that a person who works in the service sector cannot find a reasonable place to buy or rent if they chose to live and work in Kittitas County?
A May 8 Wall Street Journal story called “Rising US Rents Squeeze the Middle Class” looked at data that shows middle-income renters have it worse than those above or below them. Buried in the middle of the article was this sentence:
“In Boston, median asking rents have increased at an annual rate of 13.2% since 2010, far outstripping the 2.4% average annual increase in income.”
Is it any different here? Not likely.
Up until 20 years ago, the Pacific Northwest was not a big attractor for large numbers of high wage earners. Our sleepy little corner of the United States has been relatively immune from the housing pressures that larger and more affluent cities like San Francisco and New York have had to face over the years. Traditionally, low rent/low-cost housing existed in communities that were demographically poor, inner city areas and relatively inexpensive rural homes.
That all changed with the gentrification of the areas that have traditionally soaked up the need for affordable housing. And make no mistake, Kittitas County is gentrifying and the gentrification is as real here as it is in the Belltown and Rainier districts of Seattle. We just don’t like to think of ourselves as needing or deserving or even wanting gentrification.
Spoiler alert: This is usually where the poisonous fixed ideologies begin to creep into the conversation. Conversations that do NOT solve any of the housing issues in Kittitas County. So let’s drop the class envy and the blame and posturing and virtue signaling and talk openly with the understanding that we can hardly believe that the kinds of issues we used to scoff at have arrived at our doorstep like a bad headline.
Homelessness is not an affordable housing issue.
The issues surrounding homelessness are not the same as the issues of affordable housing. Though we have a seasonal issue here with homelessness, the people who appear to be untethered from our community are largely transient and move with the seasons. Apart from their basic medical and societal needs, they are not a part of this discussion.
The real question is this: How can we provide working families access to the rental or ownership of housing in Kittitas County. There are basically two ways, either subsidize the cost of rents or housing, fiddle with things like minimum wage mandates (a top down approach) or raise the level of earning to a point where housing becomes affordable – a bottoms-up approach. In its simplest terms, the top down approach is a publicly provided solution, and the bottom up approach is a private sector solution.
Some solutions, traditional and otherwise…
According to a report by the Washington State House Committee On Community Development, Housing & Tribal Affairs,
”The biggest barrier to developing affordable housing is the ability to secure land.”
The traditional approach to affordable housing is still the only one – given a fixed cost of construction, increasing the number of bodies in a given space. The corollary to this is increasing the number of units per given parcel of land. Many of us may remember living with a bunch of friends when we were all single so that we could afford to rent a house, and this is the traditional way to approach unaffordable housing costs. Apart from the “Who stole my mayonnaise” fights it was pretty fun at the time, struggling with learning how to live either off campus or out of our parents’ homes. It worked fine until girlfriends came along…
Increased density, either by shrinking living space or increasing the ratios of bodies/square foot is expressed in various ways now– apodments, mini housing, community housing trusts, fractional ownership, sharing the most expensive parts of a house (bathrooms and kitchens) and stacking vertically instead of building horizontally. Paradoxically increased density is what the Growth Management Act was designed to prevent, but more on that later.
Vertical density is driven by the cost and availability of land. The cost of building a structure is relatively constant and changes only with labor costs and the cost of materials, both rather slow and small variations in cost. The biggest predictor is, as usual, the availability of housing, the old supply and demand issue.
Creating an abundance of anything is the market’s way of taming out of control costs. It works best with the least amount of government interference. Creating supply takes various forms – Section 8 housing, public housing, public subsidies in forms of subsidized interest rates and availability of loans for purchasing, worker housing for specific industries. Mostly these efforts are top-down solutions which seem to be the easiest way to satisfy public concerns and spread the cost over the widest area.
Bottom up support for increased housing inventories can also be created in several ways. Employers can compete for the best employees by raising wages and the job expectations. And builders can be induced through favorable regulation to create certain kinds of housing inventory. Investors need to be able to build housing with the expectation that their investment will be returned. Tax strategies can be offered to offset the reduced cost of retail housing. It is a fact of life that any solution to affordable housing in Kittitas County will require a public/private effort. The most desirable solution just happens to be the solution with the best chance of succeeding – reducing regulation and offering advantages to encourage the kind of housing that will reduce the need for affordable housing. There is little difference between these strategies and offering tax and regulatory incentives in order to attract professional sports teams.
The government needs to get out of the way and restrict itself to creating zoning that encourages multi-unit development in an area where it is presently restricted. County Government can offer reduced-cost water rights to multi-unit construction in rural areas. They can also create zoning and land use regulations that permit higher densities through fractional ownership in rural areas. Counties can adopt policies for the pre-approval of engineered plans and streamline the permitting and approval process inherent in construction. Restrictions against wheeled/temporary housing units need to be relaxed so that a quick response to affordable housing can be implemented
State legislators must work with local government to create state tax incentives that favor increased housing inventories dedicated to affordable housing. Municipalities with the resources to do so should create tax and land use incentives that favor higher density housing in undeveloped portions of their Urban Growth Areas.
The private sector needs to look at alternative low-cost construction, and the government needs to allow it.
Using the sharing economy
People who are starting out in life nowadays are more amenable to sharing amenities and reducing their footprint in the world. The idea that every family of four needs a 2300 square foot house and a detached garage is simply not paradigmatic anymore. Shared amenities can be anything from open space and playground and recreation areas to bathrooms and kitchens to (eventually in our area) shared transportation through ride hailing services, employer bussing or public transportation. Tesla’s new facility in Reno provides all these things as a part of their employment package. Merely eliminating the need for a single family car might go a long way to freeing up money for rent or purchase.
Ultimately communities must be willing to shake off their bias against what they perceive as “low-income people in low-income housing” bringing blight into their communities. The approach to providing low- income/affordable housing in the past has been trailer parks and manufactured homes, and frankly, the manufacturers of those types of housing have been historically lax in their design imperatives. They have been ugly. Creative design can go a long way to alleviate objections to unsightly development, as can a combination of building styles and occupancy schemes that produce a less homogenous look and feel. No Potemkin villages in Kittitas County, please.
Divide the responsibilities
Low-income housing for the chronically poor is a federal and state issue and is best handled with existing policies. Kittitas County and its municipalities need to find a way to insert their efforts into the existing regulatory and support matrix with the goal of helping families and individuals who are working full time and whose entry cost to affordable housing is around 30% of their combined family or individual gross income.
Ownership trumps rental
There is no substitute for ownership, the best way to ensure ownership is through community standards and fractional ownership – mini condos if you will. Common responsibility for the maintenance of common areas, the ability to resell at an increased value. In other words, create a micro economy that mirrors housing markets with a subsidized entry point.
The government needs to get out of the way and assist in ‘negative’ ways – reducing the regulatory costs of building as opposed to “positive” ways like direct subsidies to individuals. How can that happen? Municipalities and counties routinely apply road standards on developments. They can reduce the cost of construction by supplying what is known as ‘curb and gutter’ amenities to a qualifying development. They can provide water and sewer to the lot lines and recover costs through marginally increased utility rates. City owned utilities can provide those utilities to the lot lines for nothing.
Counties will be restricted in their solutions to a lack of affordable housing largely because of the Growth Management Act’s restrictions on rural lands. The only land in Kittitas County that is really in play are the cities’ UGA’s. Kittitas County might consider cost sharing the above utilities measures with the cities since both counties and cities share planning responsibilities within the boundaries of UGAs.
Where there is a possibility of creating an affordable housing zoning or land use category in rural lands, the county should aggressively allow permitted use categories to those land uses. Kittitas County should create statute to define and manage multi-unit/multi-family, cost share in the provision of water rights, and community land trust creation. Public utilities could provide power to the development lot lines at a reduced rate and recapture costs at a marginally increased utility rate over a fixed period.
Counties and municipalities can work with state representatives to enact legislation that allows jurisdictions to identify and catalog surplus real property for disposal at less than fair market value if affordable housing is to be developed on the property.
Ultimately a Question of Economic Development
Why are we bussing workers in to fill employment slots in the new cabinet factory in Cle Elum? Why isn’t Central Washington University cooperating in training or retraining people so they are ready for the job of the future? Why do we persist in disseminating the falsehood that every kid be able to code to succeed? Why do we perpetuate the lie that a basic degree is a prerequisite for success? Where are the trade schools that will guarantee that when a company decides to relocate to Kittitas County there is a physical and labor infrastructure that can support their industry?
We should work towards providing or attracting a labor base to Kittitas County with a combination of wage parity and housing availability that will give us the kind of working class that used to be the envy of the world. That in itself is the essence of economic development.
This is not going away, and how we choose to address the problem will affect Kittitas County for years to come. Let’s get to work on it before it becomes an emergency.