Lewis County Commissioners to Consider Housing Work Plan to Address Availability, Affordability Issues

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Lewis County commissioners may soon consider approving a five-year, 12-project housing work plan that in the end will aim to provide more affordable housing options to residents in every income level, increase development of housing and ultimately lift the county’s most vulnerable population out of homelessness and into stable housing.

The proposed housing initiative and its associated work plan are the result of months of discussion and collaboration between leaders countywide that came to a head at the Housing Policy Summit last December. Work has since continued.

The proposal also serves as Lewis County’s most concerted, collaborative and practical effort yet to address housing disparities in both rural and urban communities.

Eric Eisenberg, Lewis County’s special projects deputy prosecuting attorney, told commissioners at a Tuesday meeting that the proposal “acknowledges that we have had a drastic increase in the prices of sales of homes, and also in rental prices over the last decade,” which has resulted in a clogged housing pipeline.

“It affects people across the income spectrum — from the lowest income folks, all the way up to people who are hoping to buy homes and have their children buy homes in Lewis County,” Eisenberg said.

The initiative-plan also includes methodology for measuring success of the projects, which will be presented to the Board of County Commissioners every February.

The initiative states the work plan can also be updated on an annual basis.

“Housing is not a problem you can solve. It’s an ongoing effort that requires an ongoing work plan, that needs to be updated to reflect the progress you’ve made and the new challenges that occur as situations change,” Eisenberg said.

The initiative so far appears to have the support of the Board of County Commissioners. Commissioner Sean Swope characterized it as “well done” and commended staff for their efforts in drafting it.

“I think this is going to help us to make actionable steps to make progress in Lewis County,” he said.

As of right now, the housing initiative projects have largely been paid for by the county’s current budget.

Commissioner Lee Grose called the proposal a “good work project,” but said rental vacancies will forever be a sticking point for Lewis County renters.

“I don’t know what the answer is. I do know that if we’re counting on builders to go out and build houses for people to rent, we’re probably barking up the wrong tree,” Grose said, noting that they should look into how multi-family housing developments can be implemented in rural areas.

The county also needs to acknowledge the cost of building and permitting projects, and should be proactive with companies that want to build in Lewis County, Grose said.

“We need to get our builders involved in this process and find out what they can do to help us meet the needs that are out there,” he said.

Eisenberg said the proposed initiative-plan does include developing blueprints for a proof-of-concept, multi-family housing unit that would meet state and county codes, and could be built and permitted quickly for rural parts of the county.

What’s In The Lewis County Housing Initiative and Work Plan?

Lewis County’s drafted housing initiative includes seven detailed objectives the county plans to complete through the projects laid out in its work plan.

Those objectives include:

• Continuously learning about the community’s expectations and needs for housing.

• Ensuring access to a “night-by-night” shelter, and a path to stable and safe housing.

• Providing affordable housing options at all income levels.

• Increasing rural housing density near existing services such as schools, medical clinics, grocery stores and transit.

• Providing public infrastructure improvements to growing rural town centers.

• Encouraging commercial services and employment opportunities within those rural town centers.

• Partnering with municipalities to coordinate housing efforts across Lewis County.

“This is a big deal. This is a significant piece of work we’re putting together,” said Mindy Brooks, Lewis County’s senior long-range planner. “We’re trying to look at the range of housing issues across the county and how we can be really proactive in trying to make sure we have that range of housing for people.”

The initiative also pulls together staff from all county departments to work toward these objectives.

Eisenberg said the hope is to court the support of business owners, community members, municipal leaders and housing resource providers.

“The goal is to have a sort of unifying vision that people across the county sees works for a broad range of interests, basically,” he told The Chronicle.

Brooks is leading work out in Packwood to develop a 20-year subarea plan that will look to address issues with affordable housing, public infrastructure and essential services — just one of the dozen projects so far proposed in the work plan.

There’s also an effort outlined to design and construct a wastewater treatment system and sewer infrastructure to promote development and economic growth in the once-thriving lumber town. Though this effort has been in discussion by residents for the better part of two decades, the county has set a timeline to have it complete by December 2026 as one of the last projects to be completed.

The work plan also stipulates a county effort to establish the first “night-by-night” shelter, also known as a homeless shelter, by this summer. The county does not currently organize any year-round sheltering service, though programs such as Hope Alliance and the Housing Resource Center of Lewis County do.

Eisenberg said their request for proposals could include, but aren’t limited to, construction of an actual facility.

Through a March request for proposals, the county would obtain services for such a shelter at a “location that has access to other supportive services and a clear pipeline into the step-up facility,” reads the action item.

“It’s a mechanism to give people the choice every day to go to one of these service providers and improve their situation into more stable housing,” he said.

The county also plans to contract for transitional housing services to transition those using the homeless facility into “stable, medium-term, service-rich housing” and into permanent supportive housing through a “step-up facility.”

Another proposal in the work plan would update the county’s Land Use chapter of its comprehensive plan to take a “form-based approach” to the definition of rural character, and change zoning to allow multi-family housing that fits that new definition, where appropriate.

 

The Current State of Housing in Lewis County

Generally speaking, wages locally have not kept up to speed with the rapidly rising cost of housing in Lewis County, and development of new housing remains sluggish, resulting in crunched rental and buying markets.

Diversity of housing also remains an issue.

According to data laid out in the Lewis County Housing Initiative, the average selling price of a single-family residential unit has risen drastically, from $150,000 in 2012 to more than $350,000 in 2021.

There’s currently only about 1.1 months of housing inventory available in Lewis County for buyers, whereas at least 4 months of supply is needed to moderate housing cost increases.

Average wages locally remain below the state’s average — the average household income in Lewis County in 2019 was nearly $59,000 while the statewide average was about $78,600. Almost a quarter (24%) of the county’s population has a “very low” or “extremely low” income level.

Between 2012 and 2021, there was a 69% decrease in the supply of homes for sale, the Housing Initiative states.

Renters have also continued to struggle with the costs of housing. Today, about half of all Lewis County renters spend 30% or more of their income on housing costs, while about one-in-four renters pay 50% or more of their income on housing costs.