The one issue that generates the most intense discussion in Edmonds is housing. Residents and city officials have debated for years the issues related to how and where people should live — from housing density to homelessness to affordable housing — and how much the city should help those who struggle to afford to live here. This is the fourth and final report in My Edmonds News series on our housing debate and its human impacts – It is a story of housing and change; the story of our future. You can read Part 1 of our series here, Part 2 here and Part 3 here.
A hundred years ago, no one could predict the future of what was a very small town — a village really –where a dozen shingle mills lined the shore churning out cedar shakes. Those smoky mills were the economic backbone of the fledgling downtown located just a few blocks away.
You can see the mill smokestacks in this photo, above. In 1925, houses clustered in the Bowl; the first cross-sound ferry route had just opened to Kingston and logging trucks rumbled down George Street (since renamed Main Street). Nearby, you could still find Illegal whiskey stills, saloons and roadhouses. The Princess Theater (originally opened as the Union Theater in 1916 and now known as the Edmonds Theater) was only two years old. And Edmonds had elected its first woman mayor, Alice Kerr, by just four votes over her male challenger. In the 1920 census, Edmonds claimed 936 residents.
Forty years later, Edmonds was 10 times bigger but still a small town – 8,000 people – just as the suburban boom exploded on the hillsides above the Bowl. In the next 10 years, Edmonds tripled in size.
The 1988 photos still reflect a small, compact city. Today, there are 42,000 of us. In the next 20 years, the state’s Growth Management Act predicts that Snohomish County will add another 300,000-plus in population, and that a lot of those people will move into the South County.
Planners who are already updating the Snohmish County Comprehensive Plan anticipate another 14,000 residents will live in Edmonds by 2044. Lynnwood’s population will nearly double – from 38,000 to 63,000. Mountlake Terrace, now at 21,000, will jump to 34,000.
Where will they all live?
Edmonds resident’s opinions from our letters to the editor:
- “How do you want Edmonds to look in 10 years? Don’t let them sell Edmonds down the river.”
- “In over 45 years I’ve seen significant changes in Edmonds. Is it different? Yes. Is it bad? No. We are a suburb of Seattle! It’s ridiculous to think we should remain the same while every other city around us changes…”
- “We have seen the changes that have occurred in MLT, Shoreline and Lynnwood (not to mention Ballard, Magnolia and others) and we don’t want to see them here.”
- “Change is going to happen. What matters is whether we plan/manage the inevitable growth, or we just do nothing and pretend that Edmonds will ever stay the same.”
Change is going to happen. Jim Ogonowski, a former member of the city’s 2019 Citizens Housing Commission, told me: “I’m watching the way we struggle; we shy away from the difficult conversations; we want to satisfy everyone but not everyone can be satisfied…”
(In the interest of transparency, I was also a member of the housing commission. We finished our work and forwarded 15 proposals to the Edmonds City Council. I am not involved in, nor have I commented on, any housing issues since the report was finished in January 2021)
For Ogonowski, the biggest threat to Edmonds’ housing future is the state trying to take local control away from the city. “Let the cities be responsible for land use and housing priorities,” he argues. “The state is trying in one form or another to get through some edicts on zoning policies… and it is taking away local zoning control from the cities.”
A prime example, Ogonowski says, was the city’s attempt to accept a grant from the Washington State Department of Commerce to “evaluate missing middle housing.” In return for the $100,000 grant, available to Puget Sound cities, My Edmonds News reported that “Edmonds would have been required to ‘evaluate and consider’ allowing missing middle housing on 30% of lots zoned single family, and also to conduct a racial equity analysis.”
There are several ways to define “missing middle” housing – smaller, more dense housing such as duplexes, townhomes, row houses – similar to what existed in many big cities before World War II. It also means housing for middle-income families — more affordable.
In an earlier city council committee meeting, Edmonds Development Services Director Susan McLaughlin said it made sense to get the grant since Edmonds would have to conduct such a study as part of its 2024 update on the city’s Comprehensive Plan. But Councilmember Kristiana Johnson moved to reject it because “land use planning is a local responsibility,” and the council vetoed the grant.
The Comprehensive Plan is the game changer
Like the county, Edmonds has its own Comprehensive Plan. The state Growth Management Act mandates that all communities must update their plans; the deadline is Dec. 31, 2024.
“The (Edmonds) Comprehensive Plan… guides the City of Edmonds decisions on a wide range of topics and services over a 20-year time period. As the Plan acts as the blueprints for development in the city, it will impact neighborhoods, businesses, traffic, the environment, and you. The Plan is also meant to reflect the vision and priorities of the city and residents, while meeting the requirements of state and federal law.”
Edmonds Planning Division – from the Comprehensive Plan
The city has launched its efforts to revise the plan here. On that website, you can take a survey to tell planners what is important to you.
Edmonds at a crossroads
The dilemma — how can this community maintain the sense of small town that makes it unique and appealing, and still make room for thousands more people who will move into Edmonds in the next 20 years? And will this city encourage housing that is still affordable for young families, or those with a lower or middle income, seniors who want to keep their homes, veterans and those with disabilities?
The flashpoint for any housing discussion is single-family zoning. City data shows that 70% of the existing homes in the city are single family.
In the last legislative session, Washington state lawmakers scuttled two housing bills that could have changed that. One would have allowed development statewide of up to six-unit housing within a half-mile walk of major transit stops in cities with a population of 20,000 or more. In Edmonds, that would have included the downtown ferry terminal and Sounder train station, as well as Community Transit’s Swift line bus stops along portions of Highway 99. The measures also would have approved construction of duplexes and triplexes in many other Edmonds neighborhoods that are currently zoned single-family only. The bills would have required cities to update their comprehensive plans to accommodate the multi-family units.
The city prepared a zoning map showing the impact of potential changes if the bills passed. Since they failed, that map was never publicly released.
My Edmonds News readers’ reactions to that idea:
“Single-family residential zones should not be rezoned to allow multi-family dwellings. It will eliminate the neighborhood character by squeezing more housing with zero frontage lot lines or cutting side setbacks in half or even down to zero.”
“Affordable housing, “missing middle” housing is unattainable in Edmonds. The privileged elite running this city have sent a clear message – only the rich are issued permits and allowed to build homes here. They discourage rather than encourage affordable housing efforts.”
The Alliance of Citizens for Edmonds (ACE) has consistently championed single-family housing and challenged any perceived threat to it. In a February letter to the editor in My Edmonds News, ACE President Michelle Dotsch warned that those bills would not increase affordability or housing equity and would “push massive increases in density that remove land use decisions from local control without a holistic approach to environmental, topographical, or infrastructure needs.”
Housing advocates countered that the failed bills supported “missing middle housing” that all communities need to accommodate inevitable growth. Former Edmonds Citizens Housing Commission member Jess Blanch, an architect and affordable housing supporter, in a previous story, said that ACE’s position on the environmental impact is wrong.
“The alternative to allowing more housing options close to job centers is continued sprawl in the exurbs, which destroys wildlife habitat and contributes to climate change by requiring people to drive long distances to jobs in greenhouse gas-emitting traffic,” Blanch said in a February interview.
“Ultimately, we are in a massive housing crisis,” Blanch added. “There are just not enough homes for all of the people already here… while allowing middle housing types will not solve the crisis on its own, it’s an important part of the solution.”
In 2020, the Snohomish County Housing Affordability Regional Task Force (HART) released a report “that identifies priorities for County and City governments to accelerate our collective ability to meet the affordable housing needs of all County residents and sets a foundation for continued success through 2050.”
HART report recommendations for affordable housing countywide:
– Promote housing growth and diversity of housing types at all levels of affordability
– Preserve existing housing (which is) at risk of rapid rent increases or redevelopment balanced with the need for more density.
– Increase housing density along transit corridors and/or in job centers.
Record-breaking multifamily development
Edmonds is having a record-busting year in multifamily applications and projects – 18 projects under construction or in permit review, totaling 1,027 housing units. Development Services Director Susan McLaughlin briefed the city council just two weeks ago. The number of building permits in the city has gone from just under 200 in 1985 to 1,400 last year.
But only 143 of the new units are labeled “moderate” or ‘low-income” rentals. The 192-unit Hazel apartments at 234th and Highway 99 is nearing completion. Forty apartments there are moderate or low income; the developer receives a multifamily tax exemption from the city for building an apartment that includes those units.
Edmonds has green-lighted most new multifamily housing for the Highway 99 corridor. The focus is on developing a neighborhood where there has never been one. It is part of the city’s major overhaul of the 99 corridor, which is already underway.
Just a few blocks south of the Hazel, the Apollo apartments project – 251 units — is going through permitting. And near Swedish-Edmonds Hospital, the Anthology project for 192 senior apartments is also on the drawing board.
Downtown is not exempt. This rendering of Pine Park above shows 14 townhomes on the lots that were Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream shop and the Curves exercise studio. Other small condo projects are planned for Bell Street and Dayton Avenue.
Edmonds Way is also a new go-to neighborhood, with four new apartment/condo projects. Among them are Westgate Station next to Kwick ‘n Kleen carwash, and Kisan Townhomes, across from Westgate Chapel.
What about affordable housing?
A total of 1,027 new housing units are in development; the vast majority will be market-rate rentals – whatever the going rate is. Rent Café, an online rental resource, puts the average Edmonds rent in July 2022 for a 767-square-foot apartment at $1,866. The traditional formula for housing spending suggests it should cost no more than 30% of your income. So, you need an income of nearly $6,000 a month — or $72,000 a year — just to afford average rent.
Edmonds private developers do not build low- or moderate-income apartments; there is no profit in it. Of the 143 new low- to moderate-income rentals planned for Edmonds, 52 will be built by Housing Hope, a Snohomish County nonprofit. That project is the first specifically designed for those coming out of homelessness or looking for stable, affordable housing.
Housing Hope is launching one complex in Edmonds and another in Lynnwood, for Edmonds School District families, just east of 196th and Highway 99. The first is at Edmonds Lutheran Church — 52 apartments. The second — also 52 apartments — for homeless students and their families, will be built on a former ballfield next to Cedar Valley Community School. We profiled these projects in our third report on housing.
There are three other properties currently in Edmonds defined as affordable; they were built years ago in neighborhoods that the city then annexed.
Again, they are nonprofit ventures, owned and managed by the Housing Authority of Snohomish County (HASCO), which was originally created to help low-income senior citizens. It has expanded to manage 4,000 housing vouchers, eight programs supporting families, seniors, veterans and the disabled, and it owns 35 properties countywide.
Just last year, the city council approved an agreement to allow HASCO to buy and expand its offerings in Edmonds. There is a need: HASCO says a third of all households in the county pay more than 30% of their income for housing, and a third of low-income households pay more than 50% of income for rent.
This HASCO complex, Edmonds Highlands, has 120 units. Tenants pay full rent, but HASCO says it keeps those rents “the same or lower than similar apartment homes in the immediate area.” Olympic View, on Howell Street, is for seniors who earn 50% or less of the Snohomish County median income ($89,000 currently). It has a waiting list that averages two to three years. HASCO also offers federally supported “Housing Choice” vouchers to lower-income families, which permits them to rent private apartments or homes and they pay no more than 40% of their income.
A ‘Tale of Two Cities’ housing plans
In nearby Shoreline, the city council in April 2022 voted 4-3 to order city planners to study what Shoreline Councilmember Chris Roberts said would “explicitly allow duplexes and triplexes” on property that had been single-family only. Shoreline Mayor Keith Scully said he wasn’t sure it is a good idea to allow duplexes and triplexes on every lot, but added, “studying this to see if there’s a way we can do it without radically changing the city, for me, makes sense.” Like Edmonds, Shoreline is zoned 70% low-density, most of that single family.
Councilmember Roberts called the idea “a natural evolution” for Shoreline. While Shoreline Councilmember Laura Mork said she shares the view that the city must increase density, “… the Planning Commission to my understanding is already working on the cottage housing and the missing middle components of this, and I want to get that done first.”
This duplex/triplex study goes to city planners and includes public hearings; it may be months before Shoreline makes a final decision.
The City of Mukilteo is not planning on adding duplexes or triplexes or low-income housing. Their Comprehensive Plan, revised in 2021, puts it this way:
“The City of Mukilteo alone cannot ensure there is enough affordable housing to meet the needs of all populations residing in the city. Providing enough housing that is affordable to the lowest economic segments of the population is probably the greatest housing challenge facing the city. In fact, it may not be feasible for such housing to be located within city limits due to Mukilteo’s high land values. This is why a regional approach to meeting housing needs is required.”
-Mukilteo 2021 Comprehensive Plan
Instead, Mukilteo plans to “collaborate” with other cities and public and private agencies to provide low- and middle-income housing outside Mukilteo. The Comp Plan puts it this way: “While the City has the land use capacity to accommodate current and future house demands on the whole, it is not likely the existing and potential housing units will be able to accommodate the housing needs of all populations, especially the “Very Low” and “Low” income sectors of the economy.”
Mukilteo estimates that in the next 20 years, it will fall short by 800 units housing offerings for low- and very low-income families.
Edmonds is trying to map out a housing future. The question: Will it include opportunities for young couples and families, for those with low to moderate incomes, for seniors, the disabled and veterans? With the current development surge, those are decisions that should be considered now. Some people urge that the city complete its Comprehensive Plan update first, then tackle housing questions.
The Edmonds Citizens Housing Commission spent a year and a half investigating options, taking public feedback, and hammering out proposals. In the commission’s first public poll, conducted in February 2019, two-thirds of respondents agreed there was a “lack of affordable housing options in Edmonds — that rose to 89% of respondents who rent. And 56% of total respondents agreed “there is a lack of opportunities for seniors to ‘age in place’ (afford to keep their homes). But 78% of all those surveyed also felt that “it is important that single-family neighborhoods remain zoned as single family.”
Among the proposals forwarded to the Edmonds City Council: low income and missing middle housing, permitting accessory dwelling units (small homes) on existing single-family lots, increasing affordable multifamily housing in transit and high-density corridors, cottage clusters of smaller homes, using new sales tax dollars for housing support.
The commission sent 15 proposals to the council in January 2021. But the council has voted on only one – the agreement with the Housing Authority of Snohomish County. Consideration of any other proposals has stalled for a year and a half.
An article written by Development Services Director Susan McLaughlin and published by My Edmonds News earlier this month begins this way: “Broad public participation is essential to creating a vision for Edmonds’ future. What do you love about Edmonds today? Looking ahead 20 years, what kind of Edmonds do you hope to see?”
To update Edmonds’ Comprehensive Plan by 2024, the city has launched what it calls a “community-guided visioning process for ‘Everyone’s Edmonds’.” Through September, the city will hold public sessions to help focus the Comprehensive Plan. Here is the lineup:
– Identity: Aug. 8-14
– Quality of Life: Aug. 15-21
– Economic Growth: Aug. 22-28
– Environment: Aug. 29-Sept 4
– Culture: Sept. 5-11
– Livability and Land Use: Sept. 12-18
“Every good plan starts with a collective vision,” McLaughlin noted in her article.
As Edmonds tries to find that “collective vision,” it will be a difficult, emotional, sometimes contentious journey. Whose “vision” will guide the city? How can Edmonds maintain the sense of small town and still make room for thousands more people who will move here in the next 20 years? And will we encourage housing that is still affordable for young families, or those with a lower or middle income, seniors who want to keep their homes, veterans, and those with disabilities?
That brings me back to Jim Ogonowski, the former housing commission member and citizen commentator:
“We are being given an opportunity to be heard on how much we want to change Edmonds,” he wrote. “Some will not want to change at all and others more so. Regardless, voice your priorities (potholes, sidewalks, single-family neighborhoods, whatever) so we can start to create a plan which benefits the community and spends our tax money wisely. We can either be part of the process or let it happen to us in an unplanned, haphazard, and wasteful manner. Either way, it will happen.”
In the next 20 years, Edmonds will change. Just remember how this city looked 50 years ago.
— By Bob Throndsen