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September 22, 2014

Opinion: Lack of land threatens housing affordability

Special to the Journal


We live and work in a region often lauded for its livability, innovation and “best places to live status.” Yet these assets are being threatened by growing challenges to housing affordability — a key underpinning of our area's economic prosperity and quality of life.

The availability of buildable lands in the Central Puget Sound area is critical to affordable housing. We face a dwindling land supply in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties — and run the risk of home prices escalating to a level that will be unsustainable.

Join us Tuesday
The Master Builders Association’s 2014 Housing Summit is free and runs from 7:30 to 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday at Meydenbauer Convention Center’s Exhibit Hall, which is at 11100 N.E. Sixth St. in Bellevue.
bb Register at MasterBuildersInfo.com or call the association’s events department at (425) 451-7920.

Advancing a collaborative response to this challenge, the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties is bringing together top housing experts and a panel discussion with state legislators and homebuilders at its 2014 Housing Summit. The summit is called Accommodating Housing Needs with Less Land, and it is Tuesday at Meydenbauer Convention Center in Bellevue.

Its goal: start the conversation about this pressing issue, with a focus on ensuring an adequate housing supply in the future.

Across the Puget Sound region, average finished lot prices have risen dramatically over the past five years. King County prices jumped from $100,963 in 2009 to $185,555 in mid-2014. During same period, Snohomish County prices rose from $90,119 to $104,294, and $71,724 to $81,368 in Pierce County.

A report to be presented at the Housing Summit by Bothell-based New Home Trends will reveal startling statistics about the area's remaining buildable lots. Based on projected population growth, King County has 3.87 years of supply remaining of assumed total inventory, and only 3.29 in Snohomish County.

A number of factors have led us to this crossroads, including population growth and the resulting housing demands; state and local restrictions; and opposition to growth at the neighborhood level.

Puget Sound Regional Council's Vision 2040 calls for Central Puget Sound counties to focus future growth in three specific ways: inside urban growth areas, within “metropolitan and core cities” that already have infrastructure, and in urban centers inside those cities.

In short, Vision 2040 funnels housing to high-density urban centers and discourages development outside them.

While the urban center concept offers benefits, there is no accountability or incentives to make other changes elsewhere in the urban growth areas (UGAs). Further, infrastructure improvements to support high density growth in targeted areas are many years away.

Running counter to Vision 2040 and the Growth Management Act, many jurisdictions in the Central Puget Sound area are resisting new growth and urban density, making it difficult to provide new housing. In some cases, local governments are acting in response to local activists opposed to growth.

In Seattle, infill development remains the primary option for accommodating growth. However, an ordinance adopted in 2012 made it much harder to build on smaller lots — one of several actions reducing the buildable land supply in the city without adding an adequate supply of new housing to the equation.

In King and Snohomish counties the current buildable land is expensive or significantly impacted by environmental constraints. Regulations such as critical areas ordinances, and stormwater and floodplain rules, create added layers of no-build areas inside UGAs.

The Master Builders Association 2014 Housing Summit is an opportunity to begin a constructive dialogue about the issues and some possible solutions.

We are encouraging state leaders to provide local governments with more political backing to address neighborhood opposition to growth. And without compromising our environment, we are urging State Environmental Policy Act reforms to help streamline review processes.

While providing necessary environmental protection, counties and cities should consider adoption of available tools such as buffer averaging in critical areas, to provide flexibility for builders and accommodate new growth within cities and UGAs. Transportation elements of county comprehensive plans must support growth in unincorporated parts of UGAs.

Cities accepting their share of the region's housing needs and accommodating new growth have multiple tools available: faster permit approvals and other incentives for innovative housing types; easing height limits where feasible; and form-based zoning codes, which regulate the form of development in a given neighborhood rather than the use, providing cities with greater flexibility.

There is much at stake, and we can't take today's prosperity and growth for granted. The looming issue of housing affordability is upon us. The positive steps we take today are critical to our vibrant future.

Shannon Affholter is executive director of the Master Builders Association of King & Snohomish Counties.

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