Thursday, April 18, 2024

Washington Legislature continues its focus on housing


Access to affordable housing continues to be a challenge in the 12th District and throughout Washington state, impacting families and employers. The needs for housing are different in different regions. Some areas of our state struggle with major homelessness issues. This is most apparent in the metropolitan region in western Washington, including the Seattle area, although all communities struggle with homelessness at some level. In the 12th District, our challenges vary based on the vast geographic size. We’re the only legislative district that crosses over the Cascade Mountains. Some of the needs in the western portion of the 12th District differ from the needs of the east. However, one of the commonalities across the district involves workforce housing.

Some areas of our district have seen home prices triple over the past several years, including communities like Leavenworth and Chelan. Rapidly increasing housing prices are a significant challenge, creating ripple effects in many regions as stable housing is fundamental to successful careers, communities, and families. When it comes to state policies, Washington has a number of programs focused on homelessness and low-income housing, some of which have been only marginally successful. Fewer programs exist for improving access to housing for low-to-middle range income earners.

“Workforce” struggling to find affordable homes

Due to the service nature of much of the economy in Central Washington – including many health care, agricultural, education, and hospitality workers – people who earn 60 percent to 120 percent of the area’s average income struggle to live in the communities where they work. This leads to a variety of other issues, including longer commutes, traffic congestion, and quality-of-life impacts. To compound matters, we live in a beautiful district with year-round recreation. The frequent purchases of second homes – especially in Leavenworth and Chelan – along with the COVID trend of converting second homes to primary homes across the district has greatly increased housing prices, pushing out essential workers. With every passing month, some of our tourism-based communities are gradually losing their sense of community due to high-cost housing.

Thanks for supporting my Senate Bill 5868 last session

I’m grateful to local leaders who stepped up alongside me last legislative session to enact a bipartisan solution to improve workforce housing options. With their help, we successfully passed my Senate Bill 5868 to provide counties with more flexibility to utilize an existing tax stream (known as the “.09 dollars”) for housing infrastructure. This bill didn’t authorize a new tax but broadened the permissible uses of an existing revenue source, providing county commissioners more options. Just weeks after the bill was signed by the governor and enacted into law, Chelan County commissioners awarded over $823,000 in local grants, through their Cascade Public Infrastructure Fund, to housing authorities throughout Chelan County. This action is perhaps the first step among many of the commissioners will advance under this new authority.

Passing any bill through the Legislature is a difficult process. Less than 10 percent of the bills introduced each session become law, and housing proposals have struggled more than most, but we successfully passed ours on the first attempt. I’d like to thank Chelan County Commissioner Kevin Overbay, Leavenworth Mayor Carl Florea, and all Senate Bill 5868 stakeholders for their active participation throughout an intense legislative process. It is gratifying to see the combination of everyone’s hard work results in tangible benefits distributed to worthy organizations that will leverage these funds for greater good. We can be proud of what we accomplished together.

Governor Inslee’s housing proposal

Governor Jay Inslee has proposed issuing $4 billion in housing bonds to be invested over the next six years. Much of his proposal increases programs aimed at improving housing options, including expansion of the Housing Trust Fund. Since the Washington State Constitution limits special indebtedness (Article VIII, Section 3) and the governor’s proposal would exceed the state’s debt limit, any law eventually approved by the Legislature would need to advance to the people for a statewide vote. While I want to stay open-minded about all issues before me, my initial reaction on this proposal is quite mixed. I certainly acknowledge the need to increase housing supplies throughout our state but believe the programs already implemented for homelessness have largely been expensive and unsuccessful.

It is disappointing to me that our state has allowed housing and homelessness challenges to continue to progress all the while having revenue surpluses for the past decade. Even this session – when additional revenue is still anticipated – the proposal suggests that we need to greatly expand state debt to produce meaningful housing results. Further, discussions about the proposal have not focused on other regulatory policies – many approved in recent years – that are contributing to the increased costs of homebuilding and home ownership. If lawmakers are going to ask voters to make a huge investment in housing, the state must ensure that revenues are shared in all regions with plenty of local flexibility for housing investments. We must also make sure to reform the burdensome regulations and land use policies driving up our housing costs.



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