Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Friday, March 23, 2007

"Affordable homes remain elusive"

From today's Moscow-Pullman Daily News:

Pullman forum outlines problems, alternatives as families search for choices

Eunice Stime tries to find people the perfect home, but the task is becoming harder in today's housing market.

"There's no 'great deal' anymore. There are families that will live just about anywhere they can afford," said Stime, a Realtor for Beasley Realty in Pullman.

Stime recently sold a home to a married couple with a child. The family had been house-hunting for several years and finally settled on a one-bedroom in Colfax. The young couple's struggles are not new.

"People have to settle, and they're discouraged to buy," she said of many house-hunters.

Stime was one of more than 100 people who attended the Affordable Housing for Whitman County forum at the Gladish Community Center in Pullman on Thursday. The event was sponsored by the Palouse Economic Development Council and the Community Action Center. Attendants of the forum included Whitman County staff, representatives from cities across the region, developers, real estate agents, landlords and homeowners.

Three breakout groups provided people a chance to learn more about specific issues such as land development, alternative development concepts and zoning and land use.

Chris Venne, development finance director for Community Frameworks, a Spokane-based organization that provides affordable housing solutions for the Pacific Northwest, said there is no easy way to correct the affordable housing problem. One issue driving concerns is that housing prices are increasing while income levels are not increasing at the same rate, a phenomena Venne described as "the gap."

"The gap is growing. Over the last couple years, the gap is getting worse," he said.

In Whitman County, home values are increasing by about 45 percent, while incomes have upped by a little more than 10 percent.

The problem affects economic development, Venne said, providing anecdotes to describe the national affordable housing issue.

Moderate-level workers around the Inland Northwest are affected, he said. Firefighters and other emergency workers are moving into cheaper, more suburban areas that are farther away from their service area, adding to response times. Teachers cannot afford to purchase homes and often turn down jobs because of the lack of available affordable housing, which causes school administrators to hire third- and fourth-choice teaching candidates. Businesses are finding it difficult to recruit workers because employees can't afford to buy a home and settle down.

"People in the workforce are finding it harder and harder to find homes," he said. "What does that mean for the quality of life in that community? These examples are happening all over this region. It may not ever happen here ... but there are things that may happen if you let your housing problems go too far."

Glen Crellin, director of the Washington State University Center for Real Estate Research, put things in perspective. The average home along the West coast averages about $500,000, he said.

"That certainly makes communities like Pullman look down right affordable," he said. "But, as we know, the devil is in the details."

In Washington - the state with the highest minimum wage in the country - would-be first-time home buyers are increasingly unable to afford a house.

"If we can't get people into their first home, it's going to be harder for them to move up the ladder (of home ownership) in the future," Crellin said. "We need to have reasonable opportunities for first-time home buyers to participate in the realty market. The problem is critical in communities like this."

Presenters, such as Jim Soules, a Seattle developer with the Cottage Company LLC, provided housing alternatives such as small clusters of homes on a large lot. The homes can be quality built for less money, which is passed along to buyers. As those homes become more popular, though, values increase.

Self-help housing options, such as Habitat for Humanity and other similar programs, help people with low to moderate-level incomes pay for parts of their homes through sweat equity, meaning they help in its construction. Land trust options also allow moderate-income level families to purchase homes, while not owning the land. Modular and manufactured homes also are options.

Venne urges potential home owners and developers to be creative and local political leaders to take an interest. Only then will change occur and affordable housing become more available.

"Where there's a political will, it will happen," he said. "The problem is that there's no easy solution. There's no silver bullet."
It's pretty disppointing if these were the main issues that were discussed. If so, this sounded like a forum on the infamous "living wage" more than "affordable housing."

What does the minimum wage have to do with anything? Even in Washington, no one making minumum wage is going to be able to afford a house.

There's no mystery to affordable housing in Pullman. It's all about simple supply and demand. Ed Schweitzer has been saying this for years and years and still no one gets it. Even though we are surrounded by over 2000 square miles of farmland, restrictive zoning laws have made land to build on scarce and unavailable in Pullman and Whitman County. When land is expensive, so is the cost of housing. For example, remember the development across from the high school that is destroying "the charming little valley?" Some of the tiny lots there are going for $80,000.

I'm surprised the guy from the Washington State University Center for Real Estate Research didn't mention their study that showed how the Growth Management Act has increased home prices in Washington. Whitman County has opted out of the GMA, but our rural residential zoning ordinance in many ways is just as onerous. Environmental regulations ALWAYS work against affordability. After all, you can't protect your "viewshed" AND provide affordable housing to young families. But that suits most of our local drawbridgers just fine. They don't want any new people moving in anyway. They've got theirs already.

According to the 3rd Quarter 2006 Housing Market Snapshot from the Washington Center for Real Estate Research, Whitman County is FIFTH WORST in the state for First Time Buyer Affordability.

There's also a flip side to supply and demand. There is a supply of people in Pullman willing to pay $300,000 plus for a home. As long as there is, developers will keep building $300,000 plus homes. But as usual, the free market will provide the solution. Once the high end demand has been met, developers will then begin to address lower-end housing.

But as long as we have restrictive, anti-growth zoning in place, Pullman and Whitman County are never going to be good places for young people just starting out to live. We only educate and house them for four years and then export all that brain power somewhere else. Is that what we want?

No comments: