More housing, not less, is needed to address expansion

County has one issue that needs to be addressed to attract new businesses - availability of affordable housing

“Build it and they will come,” the often-misquoted cliché from Field of Dreams, seems to reinforce the belief by many that we need less housing, not more, to address the unprecedented growth and expansion of our county. That somehow building homes, whether single- or multi-family, causes population growth.

This is not true; housing grows to meet demand, not the other way around. When this occurs, two things must happen: housing stock must grow at a rate to keep home prices reasonable and government spending must expand to meet the needs of the greater population load.

To do this, the tax base must expand proportionately to address the infrastructure, operations and quality of life needs of its citizens.

Broadening the tax base provides new revenue for county needs, supports current businesses and encourages their growth by not burdening them, a small subset, with ever-growing tax obligations to pay for community needs. Taxes spread over a larger, more diverse group of payers – whether citizens or businesses – form a more robust, stable and functioning funding mechanism. The best way to achieve this without singling out a specific group is to expand the pie rather than an individual slice. Attracting new businesses does this and more.

Unfortunately, Clark County has one issue that needs to be addressed to attract substantially more new businesses – affordable housing. When considering expanding or moving to a new area, one of the top priorities of business owners or site selectors is affordable housing. For large businesses, especially manufacturing, with large workforces, this is a top concern because without affordable housing, finding, attracting and hiring new workers becomes difficult. In addition, the pricing of housing dictates the compensation levels required to attract employees and if those numbers are higher than other comparable communities, all other things being equal, the business will look at other jurisdictions first.

This matters for small businesses as well. Whether a local boutique, grocery, coffee shop or the new hip restaurant, a customer base with disposable income is needed to buy the goods and services offered. Unless housing is affordable, no matter how good the product is, the customers needed for a business to succeed are difficult to attract.

What is affordable housing? According to Washington Administrative Code, “affordable housing” means residential housing that is rented or owned by a person or household whose monthly housing costs, including utilities other than telephone, do not exceed 30 percent of the household’s monthly income.

Currently, Clark County is reviewing the Vacant Buildable Lands Model (VBLM) to see if it adequately addresses the needs of our region. The VBLM is a planning tool developed to analyze residential, commercial and industrial lands within urban growth areas, and serves as a tool for evaluating urban area alternatives during Comprehensive Growth Management Plan updates. It also assists with monitoring growth patterns during interim periods. Affordable housing is directly proportional to the amount of land available for development and the reason the BIA is actively involved in this process.

The amount of land available for all building, whether residential or commercial, is constrained by state law, encompassed in the Growth Management Act (GMA). The GMA is a series of state statutes, first adopted in 1990, that requires fast-growing cities and counties to develop a comprehensive plan to manage their population growth. The GMA established a series of 14 goals that should act as the basis of all comprehensive plans. Although affordable housing is one of those goals, its seems to be the most often overlooked or disregarded of them.

When developing the amount of buildable lands within Clark County, the VBLM takes into consideration infrastructure, critical and resource lands, as well as rural designation. The areas considered physically unbuildable, statutorily unbuildable or constrained, as well as space for infrastructure and parks are supposed to be accounted for when computing the amount of buildable lands. The net area is then compared to projected population growth to determine if there is enough buildable land within the GMA zone and helps determine whether changes to the Urban Growth Boundary need to be made.

As with all economic modeling, the data put into the system exponentially affects the conclusion you get out. For the model to be a reliable management tool it must adequately reflect market conditions and current realities. Senate Bill 5254, which was signed into law in 2017, recognized this and requires reasonable measures necessary to reduce the differences between growth assumptions and actual development patterns.

The BIA, along with community and industry partners, is asking for the county to revisit these assumptions at the beginning of the VBLM review when data is taken in, rather than trying to address building needs after all assumptions and calculations are set and will be nearly impossible to fix.

We currently recognize two data points – population projections and infrastructure percentage – that need to be revisited, which, along with some calculation changes, can help address housing affordability.

The current VBLM population assumes a 1.12 percent population growth, but the current U.S. Census Bureau puts population growth for the county at 1.7 percent.

Currently, the model also accounts for an infrastructure deduction (from available land) percentage at 27.7 percent for residential and 25 percent for commercial and industrial, but we believe this should be higher (32-35 percent) because the rate has not changed with updated stormwater ordinances.

The model also needs to account for a Land Market supply factor, which is the recognition that although individual land availability may be calculated by zone type, market factors affect this and may even make certain pieces undevelopable.

Finally, to make sure we are achieving the intent of affordable housing and that the VBLM is working as intended, it needs to be revisited regularly to gauge progress towards this goal. Success can be measured by making sure the average monthly housing expense of renters and owners does not exceed 30 percent of the county’s average household monthly income.

Although this aspirational goal will take many years and much effort, it will only be achievable if we start now, with the correct data in hand, properly calibrated housing, land and zoning models and the political will to implement the policies needed to make it happen.

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