Housing’s Getting Wild

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As more people talk to me about affordable housing, I’ve realized it’s not just one problem. It means different things for different people. For homeless people, for example, it means we need more beds in shelters and totally free apartments. After all, 60 percent of the homeless have no source of income (according to Pierce County’s 2018 “Point in Time” study). They simply can’t pay anything, but they need a place to live. 

From another rung of the ladder I hear about young families trying to buy their first house. With the median sale price of a house almost $300,000 in Tacoma, it’s hard. Not many families have $30,000 or more for a down payment. And the competition for houses is fierce. 

When these families can’t buy, they rent. And because middle class families can pay a pretty high rent each month, rental prices have been going up. This makes it harder for lower income people to afford apartments and rental houses.

Sounds impossible, doesn’t it? It’s frustrating for sure, but we actually can make progress. There are likely more solutions at the local level than at the state level. Ways the State can help include putting more money into the Housing Trust Fund to help developers create more low-income housing, investing in infrastructure (sewer and water) in developable areas in exchange for developers creating affordable housing, investing in more civil legal aid to help those faced with evictions and considering allowing local governments more flexibility around rent control and eviction standards.

State solutions can complicate things though. Washington’s Growth Management Act (GMA) says counties have to push growth into zones, in cities and suburbs, in order to protect farmland and wilderness. We all want to protect farmland and wilderness – at least I do – but then where do we put new homes? In the cities and suburbs.

As the affordable housing problem gets worse, we’re hearing more and more about “densification,” which is planning-speak for putting more homes into the same amount of space. Tacoma’s Proctor Station is a prime example. On a block where I used to get spare keys and teriyaki, there are now 150 apartments and a dozen shops. That’s density!

A lot of people in the neighborhood – including some of my friends – didn’t like the idea of a six-story building, and I have to admit, I have mixed feelings. But maybe because I work with laws like the GMA, I understand the trade-offs we have to make. If I want to buy local fruits and vegetables at the grocery store or the farmers’ market, we have to protect farm land. If I want to hike and camp, we have to protect wilderness. And unless we build a wall around Pierce County, people will keep moving here. 

But big apartment buildings aren’t the only way to densify our neighborhoods. There are less dramatic steps we can take. Smaller lots, for example. In Tacoma, the standard lot size in most residential zones is 5,000 square feet. That’s actually a lot of space, especially if a one-story house is 2,000 square feet, or a two-story is 1,500. 

By allowing construction on smaller lots, we can increase the number of houses without sacrificing the single-family character of our neighborhoods. And people like me who don’t want big yards won’t have to care for them.

Allowing duplexes is another way to increase density without tall buildings. Many cities – Denver, for example – routinely mix duplexes with single-family homes, without hurting property values. A lot of Denver duplexes sell for almost $1 million a side. Not bad for a shared wall!

Several Pierce County cities encourage “detached accessory dwelling units” (DADUs); Tacoma is studying the concept. A DADU is separate from the main house and is essentially a second, smaller house on the same property. DADUs are often homes for family members who need to be nearby but don’t need constant supervision, like an aging parent or disabled adult child. DADUs can also provide rental income for low-income seniors or be a guest house for visitors.

And of course, local government can insist builders include affordable units when they put up large apartment buildings. Or – like Seattle – cities can tax big employers to pay for affordable housing.

I guess the point is that every solution brings a new problem. Most of us don’t like change, and none of us likes to be told what to do. But if we’re going to welcome thousands of new people and be a good home for the folks already here, we need denser neighborhoods. I’m ready to help make them as great as the neighborhoods we already have.

Laurie Jinkins is a public health official from Tacoma who serves as a member of the Washington House of Representatives from the 27th district.

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