Edmonds residents expressed a range of diverse and often opposing views during an Edmonds Planning Board public hearing on the new proposed housing strategy developed by the Edmonds Housing Strategy Task Force and Berk Consultants.
Kevin Ramsey, the lead Berk consultant, presented the findings during the Wednesday, June 13 planning board meeting, held before a packed house in the city council chambers. Citizens also had a chance to weigh in on the draft plan at a May 21 open house
According to the report, nearly 6,000 household in Edmonds are cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their monthly income on housing. These numbers were found in the Housing Consortium of Everett and Snohomish County. The report explained that there is a disconnect between the cost of housing and the amount that those who work in Edmonds earn. More than half of the jobs in Edmonds generate an income that is less than the area’s median income, and is less than is necessary for average rents.
For this reason, the Edmonds workforce is commuting further and further to work. People who meet less than 50 percent of the area median income, for instance, can’t find any housing that is affordable in Edmonds, the report said. At the same time, the housing that is occupied isn’t necessarily meeting the needs of its occupants.
For example, more than 70 percent of households have two or fewer members, but only 11 percent of housing units have one bedroom or less, the report said. People who can afford their home may not have a home best suited for them, but may not be able to afford a different one, and those who don’t have a home may need the space that a single person occupies.
The strategy put forth by the Berk consultants and the housing strategy task force is meant to address some of the ways the city of Edmonds could house more community members at a price realistic for their income.
The strategy is made up of six concepts: increasing multi-family housing, diversity of housing options, the amount of subsidized housing, reducing homelessness, addressing the needs of an aging population, and protecting low-income tenants. In all of this, “using the land that is available for building on efficiently is very important,” Ramsey said. More details on the strategy can be found here.
When it was time for public comment, many citizens raised concerns about the report, and a few praised it.
Some spoke of concerns about the side effects of creating more low-income-oriented housing, such as decreased property values, harm on infrastructure, and possibilities of increased crime. Calling herself and her family “refugees from Seattle,” speaker Teresa Holland cited Seattle as an example of what not to do. “The homeless situation in Seattle has destroyed Seattle,” she said.
Holland and others shared worries that providing more housing opportunities would bring more homeless to the city of Edmonds. Eric Soll suggested the city look to where the homelessness is, and provide services there, and not in Edmonds.
In response, multiple members of the planning board articulated that they had no intention of housing Seattle’s homeless.
“Edmonds cannot be Seattle, it shouldn’t be Seattle,” said board member Alicia Crank, who said she’d lived in the Bay Area for 16 years and watched a similar issue creep up. “But we’re talking about not people we’re bringing here, we’re talking about our neighbors, people who have lived here for years and decades.”
Citizens also were concerned that options proposed in the housing strategy could the harm the city’s infrastructure. Speaker Dennis O’Malley asked if research has been done on the relationship between low-income housing and infrastructure, and if the fire department or police force had been included in developing the proposed plan. This question was fielded later by the Berk consultants, who said the police and fire departments were not involved but can be if the strategy takes next steps.
A few citizens’ concerns were not limited to the content of the strategy. John Reed said he was troubled by what he called the “directive” nature of the report, and asked for more flexibility and opportunities for public input. “I encourage you to take your time,” he said to the council. Michelle Goodman said she was unsure about the data included in the report, adding: “I don’t know that it actually portrays what’s going on in Edmonds.”
Goodman as well as another speaker, Dave Cooper, urged the planning board not to depend exclusively on the work of the consultants. Cooper also said he believed that the strategy presented would not address a problem that can’t be solved. “Some people just can’t afford to live in Edmonds,” he said. “That’s just the way it is.”
Speaking in favor of the strategy, Caroline Harris addressed Edmonds’ values. “An Edmonds kind of day isn’t the kind of day when you don’t think of the least, and those that have less than you,” she said. It is important to act immediately, and “not think of just ourselves, and how rich we’re getting, and the taxes we’re paying,” Harris added.
Speaker Terry Rheule said she was encouraged by the strategy’s use of incentives for developers as a way to promote increased building of affordable housing.
Then it came time for planning board members, who advise the Edmonds City Council on planning and development issues, to make comments and ask questions of the consultant.
Board member Daniel Robles said that “as a foster parent, you would be surprised at why people are homeless.” Robles emphasized that the board is looking to this strategy to provide benefits to those in need. “We’re trying to create resiliency in the community,” he said. “We’re balancing this thing as best we can.”
Board member Phil Lovell echoed this when he spoke. “The purpose of tonight’s meeting was to gain input from you folks,” he said. Lovell also reaffirmed the purpose of the work that Ramsey and the Berk consulting did, and that it is by no means a concrete plan. The strategy “represents only a menu of ideas to address various housing challenges,” he said.
Board member Alicia Crank addressed the stigma around the vocabulary involved in “affordable housing” plans. “Subsidized housing does not mean the projects,” she said. “Let’s not pigeonhole a certain group of folks that we’re trying to help with this housing strategy to something that’s inherently negative.”
The planning board’s Carreen Rubenkonig’s had several questions and comments for Ramsey about the presentation. She requested that the report contain real numbers to put percentages in perspective, and that it clarify the distinction between the many labels the report uses, such as “low-income” and “cost-burdened” and “homeless.” She also asked the same question as Dennis O’Malley about infrastructure, to which the consultants replied that more data could be included, again, if further steps are taken to develop this strategy.
Rubenkonig also asked if major employers in the area had expressed concerns about being able to house their employees, and how that factored into the housing crisis. The example of Swedish Edmonds Hospital was raised, and she suggested that more data about companies’ like Swedish stake in the issue be included in the report.
Board member Mike Rosen said he was pleased with the public turnout and participation and passion at the hearing. He said it was a reality that incomes are not keeping up with the price of housing. “It is also real that issues related to homeless are very very complex and you can’t deal with them separately and they filter into all other parts of our lives and we don’t like it,” he said. But Rosen said he can’t ignore the growth that Seattle saw last year — over 1,000 people per week — and the role it played in the housing crisis. “There is no silver bullet…a lot of people are coming,” he said.
Planning Board Vice-Chair Matt Cheung offered a personal anecdote about his mother, who resides in a home that has needs she can’t meet, and that does not meet her needs. “We have a lot of households that don’t match up with the housing affordability,” he said. Cheung said that the idea of accessory dwelling units (backyard cottages, condos, garage apartments), as proposed in the strategy, would be one type of property that would benefit his mother by subsidizing her income as well as providing another affordable housing unit. He said he liked the point of diversifying housing as an answer to the question, “How do we deal with a changing demographic?”
Planning Board Chair Nathan Monroe noted that nothing in the strategy is final. “Any kind of real, structural change will have to go through another process,” he said.
— Story and photos by Mardy Harding