We all know someone who is struggling to keep up with rent increases or to buy a home, wondering if they will ever be able to compete in our real estate market. The housing crisis hurts our families, our young people, our seniors and our workers. It limits our economy, too — without enough housing, businesses locate elsewhere because they know they can’t hire workers if workers can’t find a place to live. Economists estimate that a more robust housing market would increase our economic output by 9%.
High housing costs are a problem brought on by our prosperity. Washington state is a great place to live, and we should be proud of that, but we need to ensure there’s enough housing for everyone who wants to be here and share in the economic, cultural and natural bounty that makes our state great. If we can’t respond with more houses for these productive workers, the wealthier people who can afford housing bid up the prices until housing is unaffordable for most.
It doesn’t have to be this way — instead of having more and more people competing for a fixed supply of units, we could just build more homes. You might have learned this in an economics class: When demand for an item increases, the price might jump at first, but then producers enter the market, we increase supply, and prices go back down.
The problem in Washington right now is we aren’t yet getting the supply increase we need — housing takes time to design, permit and build, and we have simply made it too difficult to build. Some people see the solution as only building single-family homes and sprawling out into rural areas. There still is space for single-family homes, even if we are squeezed by mountains and ocean, but at some point, we will build it all out, and then what? Our farms and forests will be gone, and we’ll inevitably run out of supply again. We must build “up,” too.
What are the barriers and what are we doing about it? It’s a long list — the good news is, the list of solutions is as long as the list of problems. We need to change our zoning to allow for more diverse types of housing (HB 1110, SB 5235, HB 1337, SB 5466), make it easier to build multi-family housing (SB 5058, SB 5258, SB 5491) and smaller units (this will be a proviso on tiny home regulations in the operating budget).
We’ve got to reduce fees (HB 1326) and speed up the permit process (HB 1167, SB 5412, SB 5290), which can be burdensome and time intensive. We should make it easier to build smaller homes or pre-fab homes, promote ownership opportunities (SB 5258, SB 5364), improve our wetland mitigation banking so it’s faster while still protecting the environment (another operating budget proviso) and finally, play a larger role in directly building more affordable housing for folks who struggle to afford market-rate housing (the Housing Trust Fund in the capital budget and SB 5674).
The momentum on housing this legislative session is exhilarating. I’ve always tried to work collaboratively and across the aisle, and it’s great to see Republicans and Democrats coming together to advance policies that had a partisan divide as recently as last year.
We’re in the thick of the legislative process right now, and not every idea we propose will pass. That’s why this is the most important time for you to be in touch with me and my fellow legislators, so we have the support for the good bills and the input to make the imperfect bills better.
Personally, I’m committed to spending at least the next four years getting housing right. We can protect things we care about and encourage good stewardship — we’ll avoid building on floodplains, be mindful of wetlands, plan for growth — while also building housing types as diverse as our communities.
I know that together, we can deliver real results for the people of Whatcom County and Washington state and help make sure that we have sufficient and affordable housing for all Washingtonians.
State Sen. Sharon Shewmake, a Democrat, represents Whatcom County's 42nd District.