Despite some recent cooling in the housing market, the Puget Sound region remains in a housing crisis. Home prices and rents continue to stay out of reach for many residents and future generations. Fortunately, we have an opportunity to directly address the housing crisis by taking advantage of local and regional planning efforts, and by adopting solutions that limit unnecessary new costs on building.
The housing attainability crisis is not a short-term challenge. It will require long-term planning to resolve. For example, the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) estimates King, Snohomish, Pierce and Kitsap counties will need to add more than 800,000 homes by 2050. During that time, PSRC estimates the region will add 1.8 million more residents and 1.2 million more jobs.
Unfortunately, there are no quick, easy solutions to increase the number of homes available to rent or own. It will take many collaborative, practical actions, now and into the future, to provide enough homes for our region. Positive steps forward will include things like fee-simple townhome codes that make it easier for buyers to finance and insure their homes; reducing hurdles to add more housing types like backyard cottages, duplexes and triplexes; and easing review thresholds to streamline the permit process without compromising environmental protections.
In contrast to many parts of the country, in our region, new homes of all types are built within a robust regulatory and planning framework, reflective of our region’s environmental values. As local governments adopt new regulations on top of existing ones, the trade off for often well-meaning policies is even higher cost of housing.
New requirements related to homebuilding, such as ordinances governing tree canopy and long design review processes, can add months to a project’s timeline, slowing down homebuilding, which increases costs to future homeowners and renters. Increased fees of any kind require deeper pockets by both homebuilders and buyers, further exacerbating the problem.
For example, Seattle’s mandatory housing affordability program, which was intended to create thousands of new affordable housing units through fees on development, has severely limited new townhome development — a lower-cost, family-sized homeownership option. City data show post-MHA townhome permit intake dropped by 70%. The program’s high fees have made it far more difficult to build these smaller infill projects. Other cities with similar programs such as Redmond and Federal Way exempt small residential building projects. Though well-intended, the policy has nearly eliminated new development of an entire housing type in Seattle from the spectrum of choices that we know are essential to comprehensively address the current attainability crisis.
The comprehensive plan update process that is now underway provides an opportunity to be thoughtful, and set in motion important long-term planning for more housing choices as cities and counties prepare for the future. Comprehensive plans are an important planning tool requiring local governments to update their blueprint for how to prepare for our growing region. This includes meeting the need for housing while protecting the environment and advancing other goals. Due to changes adopted by the Legislature — tasking cities with identifying sufficient land capacity for a wider variety of housing types in their planning — more than ever, there will be a focused lens on providing housing for all economic segments of the community as part of the next comprehensive planning process.
Thankfully, many cities have already been working on solutions to the housing crisis through housing action plans and permit streamlining measures. Dozens of cities have adopted housing action plans, and more are ramping up efforts to update their comprehensive plans. But how will cities and counties implement their plans?
While creating new housing policies, it is essential that local governments proactively engage with residents, businesses, and housing experts to better understand the intended and unintended consequences of new policies. Our region cannot withstand more policies that although well-intended will only make it harder for us to overcome our housing crisis.