Housing becoming an issue for state’s long-term economic health

By Kris Johnson

We hear about skyrocketing home prices in places like Seattle, San Francisco and New York and shake our heads. Modest three-bedroom ramblers going for $1 million or more. Hopeful homebuyers engaging in bidding wars, sometimes buying houses sight-unseen, or skipping inspections to ensure someone else doesn’t close the deal first.

Kris Johnson, Association of Washington Business

Kris Johnson, Association of Washington Business

But the lack of housing of all types is really a nationwide crisis, according to U.S. Rep. Denny Heck. Heck, D-Washington, was one of the speakers at a statewide housing forum put on last month by a coalition of 10 organizations, including the Association of Washington Business.

The country is at least 5 million homes short of what’s needed, Heck said, and the case could be made the shortfall is more like 7 million.

“Supply is not keeping up with demand,” he said. It only gets worse as Washington is expected to add 1.5 million people by 2040.

State Sen. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, another speaker at the event, said people are moving further away from their jobs so they can afford to live.

A few weeks before the forum, Redfin named the Tacoma metro area the country’s hottest housing market as priced-out Seattle homebuyers increasingly look south. Nearly half of the houses sold in May went for more than the asking price, and the median home was on the market for just eight days.

“This is a crisis, and crisis prompts us into action,” Barkis said.

What does action look like? Based on the discussion at the forum, it’s clear there are no easy answers. Possible solutions include rethinking state land-use rules like the Growth Management Act to allow more space for new home building and changing local requirements to make it less expensive to build new homes, apartments and condominiums.

The state Legislature adopted the Growth Management Act in 1990, and most observers of Washington’s housing issues agree it’s due for an update. Similarly, attendees pointed to the cost of building requirements as a contributing factor to the state’s housing crisis. As the number of conditions has increased, profit margins for builders have decreased, and the cost of new homes has gone up.

Housing is not a partisan issue and solving Washington’s housing crisis will take a group effort. That explains the diverse and unprecedented coalition behind the forum.

AWB helped convene the coalition, which included a mix of public and private-sector nonprofits. Representatives came from urban and rural communities in eastern and western Washington, and associations representing home builders, homebuyers and renters.

In addition to AWB, the organizers included the Association of Washington Cities, Building Industry Association of Washington, Greater Spokane Inc., Rental Housing Association of Washington, Seattle Metropolitan Chamber, Washington Public Ports Association, Washington Realtors, Washington Roundtable and Washington State Association of Counties.

If it’s clear there are no easy answers, it’s just as clear that we must act. Without a concerted effort, Washington faces the same kind of housing crisis that has prompted many Californians to leave the state in search of more affordable housing, said keynote speaker James Young, director of the Washington Center for Real Estate Research at the University of Washington.

That’s not good for employers, employees or communities.

For employers, the availability of high-quality, affordable housing is a critical factor in the ability to attract and retain skilled workers. For employees, finding housing within the same communities as their jobs mean shorter commutes, more time spent with families and better work-life balance. And for communities, all these elements contribute to the quality of place we all desire.

Kris Johnson is president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s chamber of commerce and manufacturers association.

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