There are many barriers to affordability in Clark County

Effort from both public and private sectors will be needed to impact the costs of regional housing

Last month two events in the region celebrated the rise of the tiny home.

Portland’s fifth annual Accessory Dwelling Tour featured 24 striking “granny flats,” that clearly aren’t just targeted to grannies anymore. Following on the heels of that event was the Tiny House Living Festival at the Clark County Event Center. The recent ruling on Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU) by the Vancouver City Council on Aug. 7 has made ADUs a hot topic in local politics as well.

We applaud the city for taking a step to increase the housing supply. However, ADUs are one small tool in the toolbox to impact housing affordability. Vancouver loosened some design requirements and eliminated restrictions on owner-occupancy and on-site parking as methods for encouraging ADUs.

For some context we can look across the river where ADUs have been aggressively pursued as part of Portland’s urban growth planning. Portland did not really see ADU permits take off until 2010 when they waived System Development Charges (SDC). In 2016, Portland issued 616 permits for ADUs, which is 20 times the average number issued prior to 2010. Total number of ADUs in Portland currently is around 1,900, which is less than 1 percent of single-family residential properties in the city.

A few ADUs popping up will make a difference to the person that can generate some much-needed rental income – the grandfather that is able to live next to family and the young person who finally finds a place they can afford to rent. These are all good things, but they won’t make a huge dent in our community for overall housing affordability.

Barriers to affordability in Clark County include land cost, availability of infrastructure to make the dirt shovel-ready, fees and increased holding costs due to the amount of time it takes to navigate the permitting process and complete a project.

To achieve big impacts on housing affordability requires effort from both the public and private sector. Solutions include rethinking infrastructure funding, simplifying permitting processes to reduce holding time, and empowering decision makers to act rather than languishing over minutiae and political status quo.

The bottom line is that we have competing land-use interests. We work within the Growth Management Act (GMA) framework to ensure we don’t become like Texas and Arizona with massive sprawl and unmanageable infrastructure. More regulations have passed since the inception of the act, including complicated requirements around stormwater, wetlands, and riparian areas and community choice laws like tree preservation. Collectively, we must recognize that all of these choices put pressure on land cost from a development standpoint.

Oftentimes our industry struggles with a perception problem. When our members are cast only as wealthy builders and developers seeking personal gain, the valuable insight that these professionals can bring to the conversation is neglected. Private business and public policy makers need to listen to each other and really hear one another to drive towards solutions. Achieving balance for our land needs is a complex and difficult task. It will take collaboration and compromise; common sense and community.

Even ADUs, which are generally thought of in a positive light, are facing some backlash within Portland neighborhoods like Eastmoreland with the advent of higher density in stately, historic neighborhoods. With any land use, reality sets in when it impacts you directly. Thus, the “Not In My Backyard” cry rises that we so often hear around these types of issues.

Interestingly, there’s a new movement afoot called YIMBY or “Yes In My Backyard” that is very well described in “The Unexpected Solution to America’s Affordable Housing Crunch” by Carl Alviani in Quartz (qz.com). As noted in this excellent article that outlines who is driving the YIMBY movement (and it’s not developers), we believe that the primary solution to the affordability issue is supply. So, ADUs are a good start, but there is much more work to be done.

Avaly Scarpelli is the executive director of the Building Industry Association of Clark County.

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