During a meeting in the Capitol office of state Senate Republican Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, Republican legislators last month spoke to The Chronicle about the issues of housing and homelessness.
Braun, joined by state House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, and state Reps. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, and Peter Abbarno, R-Centralia, discussed legislative proposals to address the issue of rising housing costs in Washington state.
“There’s a number of bills. … They all center around making the building environment better and therefore more cost effective,” said Braun, who argued what he referred to as “regulatory rollbacks” had the potential to save tens of thousands of dollars in housing costs.
Among the different proposals discussed by the lawmakers was legislation related to permitting reform, changes to the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), allowing increased construction outside an urban growth area (UGA), reforms to transit laws and preempting local zoning laws to allow the construction of more dense housing than is currently allowed.
“These are things that make it a better building environment,” Braun said.
Braun used an example from his own life to outline the issues he believes exist with the state’s current SEPA regulations. According to Braun, he owns a piece of paved development property in Chehalis he’s paid to have four SEPA reviews performed on.
“I think the challenge is simplifying the SEPA process,” Braun said. “Why on earth would you keep doing a SEPA there? Why do I have to pay for an artifact collection effort … four times for the same piece of property.”
Braun said he would like to see SEPA reformed in a way that requires less review but that continues to respect tribal interests.
The legislators criticized Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposal for a $4 billion bond to construct public housing. According to Braun, the level of spending in the proposal is inadequate to address the state’s current housing needs and private sector investment is required.
“The challenge with housing is it takes investment and you talk about the governor’s $4 billion bill. Big, bold move, OK. I appreciate that he acknowledges the problem is there but $4 billion doesn’t come even close to solving the problem,” Braun said.
Braun pointed to projections showing Washington state is going to be a million homes short of what it needs by 2044 in criticizing Inslee’s plans. According to Braun, the current cost of a house in Washington is between $400,000 and $500,000, meaning that to meet the shortfall expected by 2044, the state would have to spend at least $400 billion if it was going to provide the needed housing.
“We’re not even close to solving that. … We can’t solve that problem with state money. You can’t get there from here,” Braun said. “You have to have private investment and there’s a ton of private investment opportunities out here. They want to invest in Washington. We just have to give them the environment to come and invest. We do that, we’ll get money, private money, come into the state and build out. But we have to create an environment with a regulatory environment that it makes sense to do that.”
According to Braun, opponents of loosening regulations on housing construction sometimes argue construction companies will only build large houses that are unaffordable to current area residents. He told The Chronicle while there is some truth to that claim, the potential for such a scenario can be reduced allowing large numbers of homes to be built.
“If we’re so restrictive they can only build 1,000 (homes). If you’re a builder, you’re gonna build the ones you can make the most money (from). But if we make it so they can build 2,000 or 5,000 or 10,000, at some point it’s the standard elasticity curve. They’re going to have to build a wider variety of houses,” Braun said. “I’m absolutely confident people want to invest in Washington if we give them a reasonable opportunity, but we have to recognize if we don’t they’ll invest somewhere else. This is money that could go to any state, any state in the country. We want it to come here. There’s plenty of it. But they don’t want to come here because we’re tough to do business in.”
Perhaps the most controversial proposal to increase home construction in Washington is a bill that would preempt local zoning laws allowing only single family houses to be built in certain residential areas. The proposal would allow the construction of “middle housing,” or housing types that are denser than a standard house, such as a duplex, triplex, townhouse or small apartments, in areas they were previously forbidden.
“There’s talk about, you know, the middle housing bill, which really the House is leading on. … That just, that’s a hard one I think for many Republicans to sign onto, because it takes away some local control,” Braun said. “The flip side is if you care about private property rights, it gives individuals who own property the flexibility on how they build out. But the net is it adds more density.”
While the lawmakers said they have concerns with the proposed zoning reforms, they were willing to wait and see how the legislation evolves through the legislative process.
“At this point I’m supporting the bill because I want the process to continue,” Wilcox said. “We hope that it comes to a place where cities can support and that’s the bill that they will then be asked to vote on.”
“Same, we have to look at the hard thing,” Braun said. “This is a hard discussion to have but we have to push into this if we’re gonna provide the opportunity to build more housing.”
Braun said he recognizes there is tension between the values of local control and private property rights when discussing zoning reform.
“I think that there’s tension there and it’s not gonna be easy,” Braun said. “But is it the end of the world if somebody says, ‘Hey, I want to build two townhouses instead of one house in a single family?’ I don’t think that’s the end of the world. Would I prefer that the local city councils decide that? Yes, but we gotta have this discussion.”
Some of the lawmakers recognized that zoning reform is an issue that would have been much more politically difficult to address in previous years.
“I couldn’t have done that answer 10 years ago when I was new,” Wilcox said.
“Good, then I won’t,” Abbarno said, laughingly. Abbarno is currently serving in his second term in the Legislature.
One challenge with proposals to loosen zoning regulations the legislators raised was a concern about local infrastructure. Both Orcutt and Abbarno expressed concerns that some localities would have difficulties handling increased density due to the strain it would place on infrastructure.
“I see both sides of the private property rights issue, for one thing, the need for additional housing, more affordable housing, but at the same time, the local governments are providing the services there and are the services capable (of handling that)?” Orcutt asked. “I think I saw on the bill that it requires cities of 6,000 or more to allow this. Well, do they even have a transit system? And the more dense you get, the more you’re gonna have to rely on, the more opportunity there is for transit. You end up with less parking per person or per house. So that becomes an issue.”
Abbarno argued for the importance of ensuring there is adequate infrastructure in place in localities and the need to make the process for approving construction easier.
“I think looking at older communities like ours, to build housing you’re gonna need to start with infrastructure, but that goes to, and really hand in hand with, the earlier discussion about permitting and process and we’ve got to somehow streamline that process to be able to build,” Abbarno said. “You’re not just gonna drop a building on land tomorrow and say, ‘here you go, here's housing.’ It just doesn’t work that way.”
On the issue of homelessness, Braun argued the issue stems from a series of contributing factors, rather than just one particular problem.
“There’s certainly a connection (between housing and homelessness) and there’s some effort now to try to say it’s all about housing and it's not connected to mental health or substance abuse. I think that’s absolutely wrong. It’s a combination of things that are driving homelessness and it’s unique to Washington,” Braun said.
Braun claimed homelessness in the state has grown more rapidly in the last 10 years than the rest of the country.
“Whether it’s owned housing or rental housing, all of it contributes to the homelessness issue. There can be no question about that. But it’s also a mental health issue. It’s also a substance abuse issue,” Braun said.
According to Braun, to address homelessness, it’s important to look at issues related to non-housing factors. He specifically pointed to bipartisan investments in behavioral health as an example of ways homelessness can be addressed.
“I think we’re on the right track. I would never claim that we’re on a perfect track. But we’re on the right track where we’re building out services in our communities around the state,” Braun said. “I believe the right answer keeps people closer to their homes, closer to their medical care, closer to their families.”