Housing, a frequent and necessary topic this session, was front and center again this week at a work session with the Senate Housing Stability and Affordability Committee. The discussion focused on how the Growth Management Act (GMA) impacts affordable housing development and local infrastructure. Presenters included the Department of Commerce (Commerce), Futurewise, The Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW), counties (WSAC) and cities.

Commerce kicked off the discussion and focused primarily on the cost to properly plan under the GMA for housing affordability as well as where affordable housing is found in the state.

A key message from Commerce to the committee regarding cost: “Local governments need significant resources to adopt affordable housing policies and funding is needed to get this done. We encourage you to support local governments to do this work at the regional level.”

WSAC has long-advocated that funding should be provided to local governments to meet the goals and requirements of the GMA and it was refreshing to hear the same message reinforced by Commerce.

Another key takeaway from the Commerce presentation was that when considering the cost of housing alone, their data showed that affordable housing is found in rural centers and towns. However, when considering the cost of transportation along with the cost of housing, affordable housing is found in urban centers.

This is a key point, as the availability of public transportation and miles traveled daily to work and to access key services (groceries, health care, etc.) increase, this is a significant cost contributor. When considering transportation expenses as part of the overall housing costs, urban areas, like cities, are clearly the best suited to effectively provide affordable housing solutions.

The lowest cost per unit of housing are cottages, duplexes, triplexes, townhomes and row homes. According to Commerce’s presentation, more zoning is needed which allows these types of developments. However, the single-family residential home is still the leading product being constructed. It remains in high demand and the lower cost units involve greater risk for builders and are harder to finance.

Jan Himebaugh, speaking on behalf of BIAW, expanded on Commerce’s statements regarding market challenges and described several of the barriers association members face in GMA-planning counties and cities. She described how difficult it is to make significant changes in zoning, both politically and logistically.

“It takes a lot of work for a county or a city to upzone a neighborhood. There’s often a lot of political opposition. If people don’t want to change the character of their neighborhoods, then expansion is the answer. But it’s also really hard to expand a UGA – so we can’t do that. And then it’s really hard to do upzones – so we can’t do that either.”

It was clear from Ms. Himebaugh’s presentation that BIAW’s message to the committee was that providing new housing that could be considered affordable and market supported was a frustrating experience.

“The GMA doesn’t provide cover for local jurisdictions to do the right thing and enable the right housing products to come to market. Issaquah’s impact fees alone add $24,000 to the cost of a unit. In Seattle, the GMA and other regulations add $50,000 to the price of a home.”

Counties and cities also contributed to the conversation. Mark Kulaas, Douglas County Director of Land Service and member of the Washington State Association of County and Regional Planning Directors, presented how affordable housing challenges are being addressed in his county and the surrounding area.

Mark stressed that good planning was an important factor in assuring that local codes support the development of market-supported affordable housing as well as subsidized housing projects and shelters. But he also discussed the needs for assuring proper land supply and supporting infrastructure and how those key components contributed to current and future housing costs.

“Affordable housing doesn’t just mean getting into housing. It also means being able to stay in housing,” stated Mark in further explaining other factors, both long-term and short-term, which impact housing affordability. Those include taxes supporting governmental service, utilities, special assessments, and property maintenance.

Mark also expressed some concerns about not being able to access certain tools and incentives for affordable housing in UGAs that are available inside city limits. “If we’re going to use UGAs as a construct in growth management, we need access to tools like multifamily tax credits regardless of political boundaries.”

City of Tumwater Planning Director Michael Matlock, speaking as a representative of the Association of Washington Cities, agreed with many of the points put forward by Mr. Kulaas and described many of the strategies that Tumwater had utilized in dealing with the current state of housing availability and affordability.

He concluded his presentation by stating “the housing crisis we’re experiencing now would be far worse without the GMA. We have smaller lots and better infrastructure in place. Without those, parcels would be much more expensive and far more costly to serve.”