Sunday, July 14, 2024

Community Members,

Posted

In the past couple of years, the City of Leavenworth has been diligently working on potential avenues to fix our housing crisis. We have passed code amendments that allow accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in all residential zones as long as other restrictive conditions can be met (for example, maximum lot coverages and need for parking); we now allow duplexes in all zones with those same limitations; and as Mayor, I have been working with the State Legislature and other political leaders in the housing space, including Governor Inslee, to find new ways to truly attack our housing problem. We undertook the code changes and embraced new ideas proactively to address our urgent need for more housing. And we have recently learned that the State of Washington is stepping in to mandate the same code changes, and more, in all communities.

So, housing will continue to be an extremely important conversation in our community. As people are quick to point out, the increase in density has not, to this point, produced more affordable units in Leavenworth. No argument there. And they also point to how some of these units do not “fit” into the neighborhoods. Also, not something I would argue with. The goal of increasing density is not to create homes that stand out like a sore thumb, but rather the goal is to create more units within the same “look and feel” that a single home would have occupied. We will continue to tweak the code to attain this goal, as we did with the height limit earlier this year.

Code changes alone will not get Leavenworth to affordable housing. We have moved beyond the days of being able to build affordably without a subsidy of some kind. This is true almost everywhere, but especially true in beautiful Leavenworth. The costs of labor, land, infrastructure, and building materials have all increased exponentially. I am forced to admit that we’re living in a dramatically different world than existed back in the old days, when most of our cute single-family community was built. Sadly, we won't be able to go back. Even a local contractor wanting to create something more affordable, and willing to forgo profit to do so, could not make a single-family home project work without charging the market rate, or close to it. If someone with the desire to build affordable and means to forego profit can’t make it work, what will?

I believe the major piece that will allow us to move beyond this current dilemma of increased density without any real new workforce housing is figuring out a local funding stream that can accomplish two things: first, it will allow us to bring subsidy to the table to make our workforce housing affordable for those who need it; and second it also means that we can dictate who that housing is for, taking it out of both the speculative market, and the market for second homes. The homes created, whether first time homeownership or rentals, will be reserved for our workforce. This piece of the housing puzzle will significantly slow the ongoing displacement of our workforce and bring about the possibility that more of the people who want to work and live here will be able to call Leavenworth home. This is why I have been working diligently and lobbying our legislature tirelessly to allow us to collect an extra 2% lodging tax that would be used for workforce housing. Without a dedicated funding stream that can subsidize housing costs, we will continue to only watch as our beautiful town continues its march towards being a resort only, and no longer the diverse community we know and love.

Because of the market realities mentioned above, we will not be able to produce these ownership opportunities on single-family lots as was possible decades ago. Rather, it is going to take us using the increased density to provide ownership opportunities in new ways – condos, cottages, townhomes, and even tiny homes. These will be more affordable than a larger single-family home on a larger plot of land and will offer a foot in the door of home ownership, which we know is one of the most important factors in building equity and long-term stability for a family.

The tragic reality is that Leavenworth should have been creating housing for its workforce for the past half-century, beginning when we started down this tourism path. We didn't. We did little to nothing and didn’t plan ahead. So, we are playing catch-up and mourning lost opportunities (like Meadowlark).

Some community members don’t want us to grow, and they don’t want us to increase density. Easy to say if you are one of the lucky ones, (like I am), who got in before prices got too crazy. And quite literally no longer an option as the state changes requirements for its cities. Thinking only about how things used to be, or not wanting any change at all, will ensure that Leavenworth continues its current path, where prices rise astronomically, 25% in the one recent past year alone, and less and less of our workforce will be able to live here. It will cement our path toward where other desirable mountain communities have ended up: a home for millionaires only. That is not ok with me. I make no apology for the fact that I want to keep us a real working community and not just a cute resort. It is not enough to preserve the look of our quaint small town. We need to be able to do that as best we can while making room for those who are currently shut out, priced out, and unable to find even a rental.

What does the future of Leavenworth look like? Will we cling to the past and a desire to keep things as they are? Or will we face the reality that change is going to happen whether we like it or not, and in order to have a voice in how that change happens, we have to have an open mind about solutions to our current issues and those we foresee? I hope it’s the latter.

- Carl Florea, City of Leavenworth Major

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