Housing Solutions For Everyone – Not Only the Wealthy
Commentary, Island Voices, September 2023

Housing Solutions For Everyone – Not Only the Wealthy

By David Earle

Vashon, along with many other established communities in western Washington, has a serious housing problem. 

Land hoarding is a thing. For instance, the Reed family of Tacoma owns 770,000 acres of land in Washington State. There are many landowners in the United States who own more than 1,000,000 acres. Our property tax code encourages this by charging people like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos the same 1% rate that other landowners pay. Without some constraints – especially in residential areas – the market is artificially deformed, sucking the life out of anyone who does not own their home.

Here in King County, more than 10% of homes are owned by corporations. Back in the 1960s, 48% of people under 35 years of age owned homes. By 2020, that figure was halved to 24%. Homes that used to be owned by human beings are now owned by corporations. About half of those are being rented and half are being flipped.   

This means that three out of four King County residents under 35 cannot afford a home of their own. Many will be trapped renting for the rest of their lives – helping a wealthier neighbor or corporation pay their mortgage, purchase a spacious vacation home, or build that new mega yacht. Some of them will have to leave the area, breaking ties with family and friends. Some will end up homeless. 

Building a new home in King County is next to impossible if you don’t have piles of cash and years to do it. This needs to change. Having a home is a basic human right. Our own county – which should be looking out for us – is assisting in obstructing 75% of younger adults from owning or building a home.

It is not possible to procure construction financing unless you are already quite wealthy, or your job pays exceptionally well and your credit is near perfect. By taking on such a massive loan, prospective home builders end up paying twice – once for building, and again for financing. Don’t forget the tens of thousands of dollars in permitting fees and wasted time for obtaining the permission to do so (there is an eight-month back-up at the permitting department).

Many people living on Vashon work service jobs – which typically don’t pay enough to support a mortgage on a house.   

King County’s permitting department leaves a massive gap when it comes to housing those who don’t have high-paying jobs. The current process has no capacity to address situations that fall in between living in a recreational vehicle and constructing a house that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

We need a housing category that works for those who do not have those means. Here are some things that could be improved at the permitting department: 

As Seattle has done, provide a number of free, pre-approved plans for the construction of accessory dwelling units. Not necessarily to be used as accessories to a larger home, but as primary dwelling units.  With these plans, permitting should be streamlined. Once a critical areas check, water, and wastewater are handled, construction should be able to commence.  

Waive all permitting fees, or sharply reduce them, for new homes under 800 square feet.  

Get rid of rules disallowing people to build garages, barns, and workshops prior to house construction. Something like a barn is often much quicker to construct, and for generations it was typical for people to build a barn or outbuilding, allowing them to move onto a property they’d purchased and stop paying rent. Doing so allowed them to afford to pay their mortgage and save for home construction. 

We currently have an exception for those fortunate enough to live on agricultural land – you can construct a barn on any land zoned as agricultural. You do not need a septic or sewer connection, power, proof of legal access (driveway or easement for a driveway), or the things typically associated with building a house. I see no reason for any location on Vashon Island to be off-limits for building a barn, provided setbacks and wetlands, riparian areas, and shorelines are respected. 

Obviously, a barn is not a house, but it could be a great stepping-stone to a permanent home.  

It is time to completely overhaul the permitting guidance offered by the county. King County permitting has a large number of codes listed in a hard-to-navigate database. We need a stand-alone book available as a well-organized pdf and website. This document must detail all possible steps in the permitting and construction process clearly, with illustrations when appropriate. We cannot leave anything to chance, as this is a massive waste of resources. New home builders have to pay for a multitude of mistakes that could have been prevented had they been given access to the information they needed. Something as simple as an order of operations would be very helpful for planning purposes. 

We also need to figure out a way to subsidize fire sprinklers for those in low-income brackets. 

So often, permitting costs cut heavily into the one thing the permitting department should be doing: Building better-quality, safer buildings. Having seen the county in action, the permit prices are much too high to justify the minimal work they do. We need to discount permits for anyone who has less than $1,000,000 in net worth, or makes less than $75,000 a year.    

September 7, 2023

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david earle