While there’s no shortage of controversy over Edmonds’ housing strategy effort, Thursday night’s open house clearly demonstrated one thing upon which all agree: The issue remains a growing, divisive community flash point and it’s not going away any time soon.
The crowd began gathering in Swedish Edmonds Hospital’s fourth floor conference room early, and was already at standing room only by the time the meeting opened at 7 p.m. More attendees continued to file in, and Mayor Dave Earling was forced to interrupt his opening remarks while hospital building staff removed a large partition to open additional space. Despite this, many of the estimated 200 citizens in attendance had to stand, sit on tables, or stretch out on the floor.
The mayor noted that the city held a similar meeting in December, located in the Edmonds Bowl, “with a good turnout, but not as large as tonight.” The latest presentation would be essentially the same, Earling added, with a few updates and additions.
“Basically, we’re backing up and taking another look at the housing strategy issue,” he continued. “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. (The Edmonds City) 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.”
Thanking those who came to Thursday night’s meeting, Earling said: “We need your input. We’re not looking for any particular outcome tonight; we’re looking for factual information.”
The challenge facing the Puget Sound region — and a driving force behind the city’s housing strategy — is growth, Earling said. “Just in Snohomish County we’re looking at 220,000 more people by 2035, and according to the Puget Sound Regional Council 5,500 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.”
While the city needs to develop a plan for accommodating population growth, “we need to do this in ways that preserve the special small-town atmosphere that we all enjoy – and value — in Edmonds,” the mayor said.
The area’s recent skyrocketing housing costs raise another challenge, Earling added: “How to accommodate people who want to live and work here. For example, a starting teacher in the Edmonds School District earns $65,000 a year, which effectively prices them out of living in the community they serve. We need creative solutions to address this.”
Edmonds Development Services Director Shane Hope then took over the podium, explaining that the format would follow that of the Dec. 4 meeting, beginning with an overview of projects coincident with — but not part of — the housing strategy, time for questions, moving on to an update on the housing strategy itself, and concluding with more questions and answers.
Edmonds Associate Planner Brad Shipley then provided information on two current housing projects that have been been mentioned during the ongoing housing strategy conversation, even though they are not part of the strategy: Westgate Village and the Edmonds Lutheran/Compass Housing Blokable Village project.
Shipley explained that as a result of the 2010 study by the University of Washington’s Green Futures Lab, the Westgate area was rezoned in 2015 to allow for mixed commercial/residential development, opening the way for the current Westgate Village project now under construction. The project will add 91 residential units to the local housing base, 3,100 square feet of commercial area, and 121 parking spaces. Additionally, the project is taking advantage of the Edmonds City Council-approved Multi-Family Tax Exemption (MFTE), whereby 20 percent of the residential units must be affordable to low- and moderate-income households.
He then went on to address the Edmonds Lutheran/Compass Housing Alliance Blokable Village planned for the vacant land east of the church, which was recently sold to Compass. Blokable offers a relatively new modular approach to housing, where units are constructed offsite. The units come in varying sizes from studio to three-bedroom, and are designed to fit together in a range of possible configurations not unlike Legos. The owners intend to bring the units on site in two phases, and ultimately provide an estimated 80 additional residential units. Shipley stressed that the necessary applications for the project have yet to be received.
Edmonds Director of Economic Development Patrick Doherty then provided additional background on the Multi-Family Tax Exemption (MFTE) 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 paused the meeting to take questions on the information presented thus far.
These included a question on how much revenue is being given up due to the MFTE at Westgate. Doherty responded that we’re not giving up money, because without the development-driven rise in land values and commercial activity, the tax revenue wouldn’t have happened anyway. He also pointed out that an exact amount would not be known until the property is built and an assessed value assigned.
Another questioner asked about permitting for the Compass Project and whether it would have to go through a public hearing process. Hope responded that projects that meet exiting zoning requirement do no have to go through a public process, since the zoning is already set up.
Several questions centered on local concerns that Compass Housing might intend to make all or part of the Blokable project so-called “low-barrier” housing, in which people with criminal histories would be accommodated, and activities including drug use within living units would not be restricted. Compass CEO Janet Pope was in attendance, and responded that none of these units would be low barrier. “This is not a model for any of our permanent housing, and all these will be permanent,” she stressed. “This is a place for folks who need a break on their rent.”
Other questions centered on why Edmonds is setting a goal that folks who work here should be able to live here, why we want more density at all, and how we can set up strategies to accommodate the people who already live in our community in less-than-ideal conditions.
In response to the latter, Doherty explained that while it is not yet completed, the Westgate Village project has a waiting list for living units almost completely comprised of current Edmonds residents.
Responding to My Edmonds News via email, Hope expanded on this, stressing that “a key part of the housing strategy was intended to be how Edmonds can encourage more opportunities for workforce housing and moderate-to-middle income families, as well as to identify more ways to help seniors that might have special needs.”
Hope then moved into the next section of the meeting, a presentation on the current state of the housing strategy effort, what has happened and what’s next.
“The strategy document will change,” she began. “It was a draft, and needs lots of reworking. The consultant who put the draft together is no longer working for us.”
She went on to review the background, including the State’s Growth Management Act, which mandates that local jurisdictions plan for projected growth, and provides several goals and guidelines for them to consider in this regard. In response, Edmonds included a provision to develop a housing strategy in the city’s comprehensive plan.
Subsequent activities included 35 meetings of the Planning Board that took up housing issues, a joint housing forum in early 2017, the mayor’s appointment of a task force, the hiring of a consultant, a preliminary housing strategy draft, and a decision to pause, obtain more public input and work on a new draft.
Most recently, the City Council passed a resolution of intent to revise the comprehensive plan to either delete the requirement for a housing strategy entirely, or push it out to 2020.
Asked by My Edmonds News for more detail on possible changes to the Comprehensive Plan, Hope said in an email response that the city “could just remove the strategy requirement from the Comp Plan because the existing Comp Plan policies are adequate for the GMA (Growth Management Act). It’s just that a strategy would have more detail than a Comp Plan.
“Either way, Edmonds and other cities still need to encourage housing opportunities for a range of needs and incomes,” she added.
Looking ahead, Hope told attendees to expect a possible change in the Comprehensive Plan’s provision for a housing strategy, completion of work by the Citizens’ Advisory Committee appointed to advise Development Services, council consideration of a study on homelessness, and possibly a new housing work group along with a process to apply to be on this group.
She concluded by assuring the audience that updates would be posted on the housing strategy website and encouraged interested citizens get regular email updates sent to them. To join the list, email [email protected] and request to be added.
Final questions and comments included a suggestion — met with much applause — that the city pay for affordable housing by cutting government spending, and a request for a guarantee from Compass that no tenants with misdemeanor drug and other offenses be allowed in the Blokable village.
In response to the latter, Mayor Earling said that Compass will need to screen tenants, and Janet Pope gave assurances that Compass tenants all must pass state background checks, follow the good neighbor rules of their living group, not engage in any illegal activity, and be subject to regular monitoring by on-site staff.
The final questions concerned the 5 Corners neighborhood and the discussion became quite heated and contentious. Several participants repeated reports circulating in the neighborhood that the city has plans to develop the area and is keeping these under wraps, bringing out Planning Board meeting minutes from February 2018 to support this.
Hope responded that while back in 2011 there was some consideration of a neighborhood plan for 5 Corners, it “fell off the radar” and nothing further came of it. She added that any project that meets existing zoning requirement could proceed, anything proposed outside this framework would require public meetings.
While no plans were announced for subsequent public meetings on the housing strategy, developments will be posted regularly on the website and sent directly to addresses on the project email list. See Thursday’s PowerPoint presentation here.
— Story and photos by Larry Vogel