With an affordable-housing squeeze that’s raising rents and home prices across King County, several south county cities are banding together to help struggling communities.
Cities including SeaTac, Tukwila, Kent, Burien, Renton, Federal Way and Auburn are working with the county to create an organization similar to the Eastside’s ARCH, designed to promote the creation and preservation of affordable housing. South King County has historically had naturally occurring pockets of affordable housing available to low-income households, working families, and communities of color who have been priced out of metropolitan areas. However, this is changing as the entire region is becoming more expensive.
A report released in December by the Regional Affordable Housing Task Force said housing prices had increased in Kent by 33 percent from 2012 to 2017, and that other south-end cities had seen similar increases. The report also noted that rising prices are pushing people out of King County and into Pierce County. Marty Kooistra, executive director of the Housing Development Consortium of Seattle-King County, said rent increases have hit south-end communities particularly hard. “Today, preservation is still probably our number-one priority. But moreover it’s just that they are losing naturally occurring affordable housing to the market. The market forces have driven rents in South King County to increase faster in the last two or three years than anywhere else in King County.”
On top of this, much of the new housing being built is geared toward single renters or couples, leaving larger families — especially immigrant and refugee families — in a difficult place. Long waiting lists for federal Section 8 housing vouchers mean that when families finally receive them, there may not be suitable housing in the areas where the vouchers are valid. “Family-size housing is a huge problem in the region because a lot of what we’re producing today is not family-size housing,” Kooistra said.
Many seniors in both South and North King County also need housing assistance, said both Kooistra and Kenmore mayor David Baker. In many parts of the county, some of the most affordable housing found in mobile-home parks has also been threatened.
Cities across the county have created local property-tax breaks for developers who include affordable housing. These breaks, known as multifamily tax exemptions, can be coupled with streamlining permits for affordable housing, similar to what was recommended by the county’s Regional Affordable Housing Task Force, which published its report in December. The report said cities could create standardized mother-in-law unit plans and allow utility companies to waive sewer-hookup fees to lower the cost of building more housing. The goal is to create 44,000 affordable units countywide by 2024, and to also create an Affordable Housing Committee within the Growth Management Planning Council. A number of additional ways to spur affordable development were also included in the plan, and cities are free to pick which options will work best for them.
Task force co-chair and King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci said the report was blessed in one way or another by all the cities in King County. “Having all the suburban cities and Seattle and King County work together, I think, is a necessary element of success,” she said. “We’ll see if it’s sufficient, but it’s necessary.”
Balducci and Kooistra said they are focusing on spurring private development instead of looking at public housing. Balducci said public housing would be “extraordinarily expensive,” and she was unsure if the county could raise the necessary funds. Kooistra said part of the problem is Washington state’s tax structure, repeatedly called the most regressive in the country. This means the state relies heavily on sales, property, and consumption taxes instead of income taxes. Under this system it would be difficult to raise the billions of public dollars necesssary to create 44,000 units if they were to be public housing, Kooistra said. The county could ask voters to approve a .1-cent sales tax increase to build, acquire, and operate affordable housing, but King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski has said this would also raise concerns about the use of further property taxes to fund affordable housing under the state’s tax structure.