Citizens gathered Monday evening in the Edmonds Library Plaza Room to hear and interact with City officials on the background and future of the much-debated Edmonds Housing Strategy.
“We realize that the housing strategy effort got off to a bumpy start,” said Mayor Dave Earling in his opening remarks to the group of about 40 in attendance. “We know there are misconceptions out there. Tonight we want to address these, answer your questions, gather good information from you, and walk you through what we know. The first draft was just that — a draft. Council will be intimately involved as we move forward with a second draft, and as part of this they want to know what happened and how we got to this point. Your feedback is critical.”
Earling then turned the podium over to Development Services Director Shane Hope, who explained that the meeting would comprise two parts. First would be an overview of some key local housing projects and issues that are not necessarily part of the strategy, and second a review of the housing strategy process to date and into the future.
“Some of you have been very involved in this process from the beginning, and are familiar with the rationale and the issues,” she explained. “Some of you are relative newcomers. I’m hoping this structure for tonight’s open house will serve to get us all on the same page.”
Hope then brought Edmonds Associate Planner Brad Shipley to the podium to give information on two current housing projects that have been wrapped up in the ongoing housing strategy conversation, but are not part of the strategy: Westgate Village and the Edmonds Lutheran/Compass Housing Blokable Village project.
While both projects would increase the supply of affordable housing in Edmonds, they’re doing it differently. Westgate Village is taking advantage of the Multi-family Tax Exemption program, whereby the developer is setting aside 20 percent of the 91 planned housing units for affordable housing. The Edmonds Lutheran/Compass project is utilizing innovative manufactured housing units that will be administered by the Compass Housing Alliance as part of its ongoing work to provide housing and services to the homeless and people in crisis.
“While construction activity at Westgate is in progress, the Edmonds Lutheran project presently consists of a demonstration unit only,” Shipley said. “We understand however that Compass is poised to move ahead with the project.”
Edmonds Director of Economic Development Patrick Doherty then provided additional background on the Multi-Family Tax Exemption program, which again is not a formal piece of the housing strategy, but figures into the issues surrounding it. He used Westgate Village as an example of how this works in Edmonds.
“The Multi-Family Tax Exemption program was developed as a tool to encourage affordable housing,” he explained, “and many cities around the state have used this tool to get affordable housing in their jurisdictions. In Edmonds we think it’s smart to encourage housing and especially affordable housing in areas like Westgate that have good access to transit, and are best able to handle the growth.”
Doherty went on to explain that by exempting residential components from the tax rolls for 12 years, builders are provided an attractive incentive, without which many would simply not choose to embark on such a project.
“It’s important to understand that the only thing that’s exempted are the housing units, what we refer to as the residential improvement value,” he said. “The land and commercial units – the non-residential components – are still subject to tax. This means that development results in an immediate boost in tax revenue, since it will push land values up and commercial enterprises will move in and pay taxes. Without the exemption, this project may well have not happened and the area in Westgate might have stood vacant for many years, generating minimal tax revenue.”
Hope then took over, pausing to take questions and input from the audience on the issues raised thus far.
“You’ve talked a lot about affordable housing,” said one participant. “Just what does that mean in terms of dollars and cents? How much will folks pay per month?”
After explaining that what a person will pay can be no more than 30 percent of their income, and that these affordable units will be limited to families making between 80 and 120 percent of the median income, the presenters quickly put together an example based on a family making $60,000 per year or $5,000 per month. In this case the family would pay no more than $1,500 per month for their combined total housing costs, which includes not only rent, but utilities, renters insurance and other direct living expenses.
Another participant asked how we can be sure we’re taking care of Edmonds residents first.
Hope responded that while we can’t say that people from other places can’t live here, so far all the folks who have signed up for residential units at Westgate are current Edmonds residents. “But we’ll need to look at this and see how to make it a priority as we move forward,” she added.
Another questioner asked about the 12-year exemption from taxes, and whether the units would remain low-income after this period.
Doherty responded that they would revert to market rate after the exemption period expires.
Other questions raised concerns about increased crime, especially in the Compass-administered units at Edmonds Lutheran. Compass CEO Janet Pope was present, and responded that Compass has a strict policy to not admit predators and those convicted of violent crimes.
Questioners then asked about whether those with a history of non-violent crimes such as prostitution, theft and drugs would be eligible. Pope responded that each case would be carefully reviewed, and also explained how Compass assigns case workers to each resident to help ensure that they adhere to agreed upon standards of conduct.
With the first part of the evening concluded, Hope went on to talk about the Edmonds Housing Strategy effort, why we’re doing it, what’s been done so far, and the prospects for moving forward.
She began with the 1990 Washington State Growth Management Act, which mandated cities to encourage the availability of affordable housing, preservation of existing housing, and to provide for a range of housing options.
Pursuant to this, Edmonds’ most recent Comprehensive Plan (2017) calls for the city to develop a housing strategy by 2019, and in 2017 Mayor Dave Earling appointed a Housing Strategy Task Force to develop ways to take on what is described as a “housing affordability crisis.” The idea was to develop a plan tailored to the specifics of the Edmonds, that would increase the supply of affordable housing for all income levels and meet our projected housing needs.
“That’s what we’ve been trying to carry out,” Hope explained. “The Housing Strategy Task Force was only charged with making recommendations on how to develop the strategy, not to actually produce it. They made their recommendations, and a consultant was hired to produce a preliminary draft strategy.”
“By this time it had become clear that there were lots of misunderstandings and disagreement with the basic ideas put forth in the draft strategy,” Hope said. “This ultimately led to the decision to put the process on pause and rethink the entire thing. It’s a subject of high interest, it’s complicated, and there’s no simple solution. To help at this stage, I assembled an informal group of citizens to give advice on how to move forward with this complex issue.”
Additional discussions with the mayor and council were also held.
“Based on the advice and discussions, we’re looking at formally appointing a new commission sometime in 2019,” she said. “The council will play an active role in defining what the commission will look like, its role, and its mission. Ultimately the new commission will work on the next round of the strategy, and this will involve but not be limited to rethinking the entire vision, looking at all the data available, and lots of public input such as focus groups, neighborhood meetings, and more.
“Tonight’s meeting moves us in this direction,” she continued. “While we had originally planned the next meeting for Dec. 13, we’re thinking now that this would be too soon and have rescheduled for Jan. 10, 2019 at Swedish Edmonds.”
The final round of questions raised issues touching on the root causes of homelessness, ultimately concluding that it’s not one issue but many spanning the gamut from health problems (physical and mental) to domestic abuse to runaways to drugs.
“Homelessness has many definitions too,” added Hope. “It can vary from lying in the open to living in vehicles to couch surfing.”
One questioner asked about the consultant, how much was paid, and whether they’re still working on this.
“We paid $90,000 on that contract,” responded Hope. “The consultant is no longer working on this project.”
Another questioner asked what will be done to ensure a diversity of opinion on the new commission.
Hope responded by saying that while this will ultimately be a council decision, she thinks it likely that they will try to get representation from all parts of the city, a wide range of ages, family people, renters, owners, landlords and more.
The final questions concerned the projected timeline.
“The council is looking at early 2019 to begin the process,” Hope responded. “From there it’s hard to tell, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it went into 2020.”
Mayor Earling then returned with a few closing remarks.
“There are few people who dislike change more than I do,” he said. “But it’s coming. Snohomish County’s population is expected to add 220,000 people by 2035, and the Puget Sound Regional Council guesses that 5500 of these will live in Edmonds. We’ll need 1,200 more housing units and 1,000 more jobs to accommodate this, and we need to think now about how we’re going to do it. The things we talked about tonight bring us closer to meeting this challenge and starting some real change that will affect human lives. Thank you all for being here and being part of this.”
View the PowerPoint from Monday’s open house here.
— Story and photos by Larry Vogel