Rep. Andrew Barkis: Coronavirus makes it harder on renters and builders, but there is hope
As published in The Seattle Times
Our state is facing a health and economic crisis. Coronavirus has changed our way of living and working, and created uncertainty of what the future holds for our health, employment, finances and housing.
It is critical all levels of government lead during this crisis. Most actions taken so far by our federal, state and local governments are encouraging. However, we also need our private sector, nonprofit organizations, faith-based communities and volunteers to help us bridge to a more certain time.
Collectively, we will meet this challenge.
As a state lawmaker, one of the issues I am focused on is housing. I don't have to tell you that King County already was experiencing a housing crisis before coronavirus. It is a problem throughout our state.
Housing is a fundamental need that has become an exorbitant expense for too many people. These scenarios range from seniors being priced out of their homes due to rising property taxes, to individuals and families living paycheck-to-paycheck to pay mortgage or rent, to the worst outcome of all — homelessness.
Coronavirus now threatens to exacerbate these problems.
In this current economic turbulence, we must ensure people can pay their mortgage and rent. I believe government will continue to take steps to help. And if the Legislature needs to act in a special session, it will.
We also cannot lose sight of the underlying problem facing our state when coronavirus finally abates: a lack of housing supply. The best way to address our supply problem is to create more housing. We need more apartments, condos and houses. When our supply is properly aligned with demand, it will lower housing costs.
Again, our public sector cannot do it alone. We need the help of our private sector.
Unfortunately, government has created impediments for our state's building industry — including burdensome regulations and restrictions under the Growth Management Act and designated Urban Growth Areas. These and other regulatory burdens have made it harder to build in our state. This has resulted in fewer and more expensive housing units for Washingtonians.
Our developers, contractors and laborers now face uncertainty with the potential impacts of coronavirus. They are trying to get clarification on what the governor's recent proclamation means for their industry and will be navigating issues relating to labor shortages, supply chains, material costs and investment uncertainty. Now more than ever, our private sector needs barriers removed.
The good news is there has been an awakening in the Legislature to the reality that well-intended policies of the past have contributed to our housing crisis. There is a willingness to address the problems in bipartisan ways. And stakeholders who have been at the opposite ends of issues are coming to the center to find solutions.
This legislative session offers an example. House Bill 2673, which I authored and was signed into law, will create exemptions to infill development under the State Environmental Policy Act. Infill development is the process of developing vacant or underused parcels within existing areas that are already mostly developed.
This solution will alleviate redundancies and time delays encountered by developers and allow flexibility for local jurisdictions that want to plan for growth. Most important, it will provide local governments with a valuable tool to promote urban redevelopment and create more affordable housing.
This is a step in the right direction. But more must be done.
The Legislature should do more to urge cities to allow accessory dwelling units (apartment over a garage, a tiny house in a backyard or a basement apartment). This would create instant housing supply.
State lawmakers should also open up, streamline and strengthen the Multifamily Housing Tax Exemption. This property-tax exemption program allows the private sector to build for lower costs, through incentives, and offer housing units below market value.
There are already bipartisan bills to accomplish these goals. And there are other ideas that could be considered in a special session, if necessary, or introduced next year. Either way, the Legislature must act as soon as possible.
We can get through any crisis if we all work together. And a central focus — now and in the future — must be affordable housing for all of Washington.