A report from a countywide task force on affordable housing detailing ways in which municipalities can increase their stock was finished in December after 18 months of work.
The report, accepted by the King County Council on Jan. 7 to be forwarded to committees, was a collaboration of 38 cities and the county, and explores tools for building and preserving affordable housing. It focuses specifically on creating housing for those making less than 50 percent of the area median income and those most vulnerable to displacement from rising housing costs. The task force developed a five-year plan to build or preserve at least 44,000 affordable housing units, a goal which King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski said was ambitious but possible. “I don’t know that there’s any single silver bullet, but I think it’s got some good guiding principles and actions that should help put a dent in the problem,” he said.
The report puts the scope of the housing problem into perspective. To meet the current demand for affordable housing, the county needs 156,000 more units, and an additional 88,000 by 2040, to ensure that no low-income or working-class households are spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Spending more than 30 percent classifies one as cost-burdened; those spending more than 50 percent of their income are designated extremely cost-burdened.
Communities of color and renters are more likely to be severely cost-burdened. The report notes that 56 percent of black households, around 50 percent of Hispanic households, and 35 percent of white households were severely cost-burdened, and renters are more likely than home owners to pay more than 50 percent of their income to housing. Age also factors in, with those under 25 and seniors being the most likely to be cost-burdened. For the young, higher housing costs mean they can’t save for a home, make investments, or pay for higher education. Seniors struggle with finding places to live on fixed incomes and paying for health care.
Kenmore mayor David Baker—co-chair of the Regional Affordable Housing Task Force, which produced the report—said creating housing for seniors was one of his main focuses. “I know in Kenmore, I would love to see 300 or more units developed down at the 30 percent median-income level simply because the increasing number of seniors who need housing,” he said. “It’s just not fair to have somebody who’s paid into the system their entire lives to end up on the street because they can’t afford the taxes anymore.”
County housing costs have skyrocketed in the past decade. In 2018, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development pegged the area median income (AMI) for a family of four in King and Snohomish Counties at $103,000 annually. A family earning $82,720 would be making 80 percent of the AMI, and Baker said this has typically been where affordable housing has been focused in the past. A family making 80 percent of the AMI could pay up to $2,068 a month in rent without being cost-burdened; still, the average rent in King County was $2,432 each month.
As of last October, the median price for a house in Seattle was just over $706,000, and houses on the Eastside were more than $100,000 more expensive. Also, from 2013 to 2017, the county grew by an average of 32,000 people each year, but only 10,100 housing units were added each year. Of the people moving here, 60 percent of the new households from 2006 to 2016 earned $125,000 or more, while 18 percent earned less than $50,000 annually. This means developers are focusing on luxury housing and many people are being priced out as new residents make the area more affluent, the report says. Low-income residents are often severely cost-burdened, find it difficult to save, and are many times only one unexpected bill away from homelessness.
On top of this, area housing laws are relatively weak. People can be evicted for missing a payment by only four days, and in Seattle, the report found that 45 percent of eviction filings were for missing one month or less of rent. Landlords are required to give only 20 days notice of a rent change, which can force people into a housing market with a vacancy rate of less than 5 percent; and with every $100 increase in rent, the homelessness rate increases by 15 percent. Even south King County cities, historically more affordable, are seeing prices increase. In Kent, rents increased by 33 percent from 2012 to 2017.
While the report is non-binding, it lays out goals and strategies which cities can use to help increase the amount of affordable housing. The most immediate goal is the creation of 44,000 affordable units for people making 50 percent of the AMI or less by 2024. An Affordable Housing Committee will be created in the Growth Management Planning Council and a number of avenues for increasing housing stock are laid out in the report.
Baker said one of these would be standardizing mother-in-law unit blueprints between cities, letting homeowners interested in building one pick a pre-approved blueprint from a city to keep costs down. They’re also talking with utility providers to waive sewer hookup fees for these units, a cost which can run up to $10,000. Northshore Utility District has already signed on to this, he said: “We’re trying to get all these different ideas so that if a builder comes to one city, he knows the same rules are going to apply when he goes to a different city.”
The county could also ask voters to approve a 1/10 of a penny sales-tax increase to build, acquire, and operate affordable housing, Dembowski said. The report recommends that municipalities looks at revenue authority that is already established to fund affordable housing. Dembowski said he doesn’t know if the county could propose an increase this year as an emergency services and a parks levy will already be on the ballot, along with local asks. It also raises concerns about using a regressive tax like the sales tax to fund affordable housing, he said.
On average, the report noted around $306 million of public money has been spent on building or preserving affordable housing annually in the county. The federal government has historically invested the largest amount of funding through the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, but those resources haven’t kept pace with increased need. Between 2012 and 2017, around $225.5 million came from the federal government each year, $53.5 million from cities in the county, $16 million from the county itself, and $12 million from the state.
Three housing authorities operate in the county, run by King County itself, Seattle, and Renton; together these own more than 18,000 affordable housing units. Cities can also band together and create housing organizations, like the Eastside’s A Regional Coalition for Housing. Around eight south-county cities are expected to create a similar organization in 2019, and Lake Forest Park and Shoreline are exploring the same option.