Public meeting set to address affordable housing, community plan

King County will host a public meeting on affordable housing next week that will include issues that have arisen during the long-term planning process underway and broader aspects of putting housing within reach of more people.

Bradley Clark, a planner with King County who has been leading the process to draft a Community Service Area (CSA) Plan for the island since last March, said there is widespread recognition that there is a need for more affordable housing on Vashon. However, the topic has been controversial in the community, with a variety of opinions about how best to move ahead while being mindful of Vashon’s rural nature and limited resources, particularly water. In recent months, several members of the Community Advisory Group (CAG) working on the plan have expressed the need for a meeting dedicated solely to housing. The result is next week’s event, which is intended to help people learn more about the issues and possible ways to address them. The current proposal regarding increasing density for affordable housing in Vashon’s town area will be discussed, as will additional measures, including rehabilitating existing homes and providing vouchers for housing. Speaking broadly, Clark said information will be provided on what housing experts say are some of the best options for addressing the challenges surrounding affordable housing, the current housing picture on Vashon and the relationship of the CSA Plan to affordable housing. While there has been a lot of attention given to the plan in recent months, he noted that the plan is one element of a much larger picture.

“There is never a one bullet answer,” he said. “The plan is just one piece of the puzzle.”

County officials hope many people attend the meeting, Clark said, particularly those who have not yet been part of the process.

On Vashon, statistics from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) — provided by King County’s Valerie Kendall, an affordable housing planner who has been involved with the CSA planning process — provide insight into some of the island’s housing affordability challenges. The data, from 2009 to 2013, shows there were 5,140 households on Vashon during that time. Of those, 80 percent (4,135) were homeowner households, while the remaining 20 percent (1,005) were renter households.

Typically, the standard is that people should pay no more than 30 percent of their income to housing expenses; those who do pay more are considered “cost burdened.” On Vashon, the HUD information indicates that 1,610 homeowners and renters were cost burdened, while 665 households paid more than 50 percent of their income toward housing. Regarding renters specifically, 505 low-to moderate-income renters were cost burdened, and 450 paid more than 50 percent of their income toward housing.

Indications are that the situation is no better in 2017 than in 2013 — and quite possibly worse. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in 2013, Washington was ranked the 15th most expensive state to live in for rental housing. In 2016, Washington had moved up to 10th place, with King and Snohomish Counties far exceeding rental costs in the rest of the state.

It was against this backdrop that the Housing, Land Use and Health Subcommittee worked for months to create recommendations to help reduce obstacles to building affordable housing. Those recommendations will be included in the CSA Plan, slated to be finalized this spring. In turn, the plan will be included in the King County’s Comprehensive Plan, which will guide the county’s development and capital improvement decisions over the next 20 years.

At the end of last month, based on the work of the subcommittee, the full CAG voted to expand the affordable housing incentives in place within King County code and apply those to much of Vashon’s Rural Town area as a special district overlay. Specifically, within a designated area, that recommendation calls for allowing any parcel zoned R-4 or higher (four units or more per acre) to be developed at a maximum of 12 or 18 units per acre as long as all units are reserved for those who earn 80 percent and below of the area’s median income. For a single person, that is $48,550 per year.

The intent behind creating the overlay was to increase the supply of affordable housing and enable affordable housing developers to avoid a rezone process, which can be costly and time consuming. At the upcoming meeting, islanders will have a chance to voice their opinions about if the density should be limited to 12 units per acre or allow for 18, among other concepts.

Chris Szala, who heads Vashon HouseHold and served on the housing subcommittee, has stressed the need for affordable housing developers to have the opportunity to build at a greater density than 12 units per acre. This is important, he said, in part because increasing the number of units lowers per-unit costs, which are evaluated when government lenders and other funders determine whether or not to support projects. Additionally, he said, funders such as King County prefer to support larger projects.

“Ten units, that is not something public funders are going to be interested in,” he said.

Moreover, he said building on Vashon is expensive and automatically adds 15 percent to the overall cost of projects compared to on the mainland. Szala added that building affordable housing comes with many requirements, such as the completion of geotechnical surveys, which add to projects’ costs. He noted that the process is not like building a private home.

“That is not how it works with these types of projects. There is so much more involved,” he said.

As the subcommittee grappled with how to allow for affordable housing, concerns rose in and outside the group about balancing more housing with Vashon’s rural nature and its water, which is limited.

Some in the community have voiced reservations about the recommendations of the group, including the current special district overlay proposal. One of the concerns expressed by several people is that such an overlay could result in as many as 2,000 units of housing — if development occurs on a larger percentage of properties to the extent the overlay allows.

However, Clark has said that this type of planning process typically does not use “build-out” numbers in this manner. Typically, he said those numbers are used to guide needed infrastructure. But the opposite is true in this situation on Vashon.

“The water limitations flip that scenario on its head. Rather that build-outs telling us what infrastructure is needed, really we have infrastructure and water telling us how many dwelling units we are going to have,” he said.

Among those who have raised concerns is islander Martin Baker, who is the former deputy director of Seattle Public Utilities. In December he presented a plan to the Housing, Land Use and Health Subcommittee that he drafted with islander Frank Jackson. It called for building 10 affordable dwelling units annually in Vashon’s town core, in keeping with Vashon’s rural town character and mindful of its limited resources.

While the subcommittee did not consider that plan, Baker said last week that he believes the subcommittee ultimately did a good job balancing the island’s resources and the need for more affordable housing. He credits those who spoke up with helping committee members arrive at the current proposal.

He noted, however, that he still has concerns, including regarding the scale of proposed density, and that he would like to see more data regarding 12 versus 18 units per acre.

Also a concern, he said, is the possibility of having a mismatch between available water shares and zoning capacity.

“It is really bad public policy to assume that you can adopt any land use capacity without regard to the water supply or the utility capacity,” he said.

Creating land use policy that puts a water district or any utility in a position of controlling growth could easily put them in a “pressure cooker,” he said, and is not fair to do so. Should the utility give in to development pressures, he said, the result could be solutions that would be expensive for everyone. To that end, he said he would like the CSA Plan to include wording to safeguard against that and made the following recommendation: “Density through zoning must match the available water supply without making water rates unaffordable.”

Baker noted that the pressure Vashon is facing regarding housing is being felt in communities across the country, and he believes soon there will be other tools and business models to address affordable housing needs. On the island, he said this process has generated a lot of thinking, which he believes will continue after the planning process is done. Still, he said, the reality is that the island has limited resources.

“I cannot control that, but I can try to mediate it. It is why this work is so important,” he said.

The forum on affordable housing will meet from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23, at McMurray Middle School.

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