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Originally published Friday, January 12, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Action needed to avert crisis as growth, affordable housing collide

A quiet crisis of housing affordability is growing in King County. Despite our expanding economy and record housing sales, too many middle...

Special to The Times

A quiet crisis of housing affordability is growing in King County. Despite our expanding economy and record housing sales, too many middle- and lower-income families cannot find housing they can afford, and housing prices continue to increase.

Consider a few statistics:

• The median price of a single-family home rose by 31 percent in the past two years, from $324,000 in 2004 to $425,000 in October 2006.

• Only 2.4 percent of single-family homes for sale in King County are affordable for families of median income here ($65,940 projected for 2006).

• For the 12 months that ended in June, the Seattle area alone added more than 65,000 jobs, but only 10,000 new housing units were built in all of King County.

• Nearly one-third of homeowners and almost half of renters in King County are paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing, which is the federally recognized threshold for affordable housing.

• In 2005, the tri-county King-Pierce-Snohomish area registered a net loss of 1,500 apartment units, largely due to condominium conversions, underscoring the need for more rental and for-sale housing.

• Earlier in 2006, the King County Housing Authority received nearly 12,000 applications for rental assistance in just two weeks.

Last May, a group of industry professionals met to define the scope and causes of the affordable-housing crisis, and to brainstorm some solutions. As the discussion progressed, one issue kept coming up again and again. In King County, the state Growth Management Act of 1993 has had the greatest impact on the availability and affordability of housing.

Just last November, a task force of the state Affordable Housing Advisory Board — convened by Gov. Christine Gregoire — called for changes in state law that will help meet affordable housing goals.

It is time to fully implement the balance directed by the Growth Management Act. Housing production must catch up with population and job growth while also protecting our natural resources and open space. In order to ensure that affordable housing can be built for all price ranges, we urge the state Legislature to take action on the following recommendations:

• In order to make realistic plans, growth projections must be based on job growth as well as population growth. Employment numbers must be factored into growth projections. King County should be able to house all of its employees instead of relying on adjacent counties such as Pierce, Thurston, Kitsap, Snohomish and Skagit to house our new workers.

• Comprehensive land-use plans must be more flexible to respond to changing conditions. When a large new employer opens for business, the housing has to be there for the employees. As the baby boomers age and retire, homes that are closer to health services and accessible at ground level will be more in demand. Currently, King County allows zoning to be revised only once every four years, and that can leave development of housing far behind the increasing demand.

• To better meet changing needs, statistics for jobs and housing should be reported annually for every jurisdiction. Telling every city to plan for a certain percentage of growth in the next 10 years does not address the vastly different job-growth rates in different communities. Workers then are forced to live where the houses are, which may be 20 or 30 or more miles away from their jobs. This distance between jobs and the housing that workers can afford overburdens our transportation infrastructure.

• The "Buildable Lands Report" that the state requires the county to issue every five years should reflect real conditions. For instance, urban land that is zoned for high density, but does not yet have infrastructure serving it, should not be considered the same as vacant, accessible land. Land where development is restricted by critical areas, steep slopes or transportation concurrency limits should be listed as "potentially" buildable instead of available. Failure to account for land-use restrictions creates a falsely optimistic picture of land available for housing.

• In addition, the state should fund the production and enhancement of the "Buildable Lands Report," an unfunded mandate that currently must be covered by the county general fund.

• The Growth Management Act should be modified to prohibit new county land-use laws from creating a net loss of housing capacity.

• Finally, the state should undertake a long-term effort to study how growth management affects housing affordability, and recommend changes that support affordability.

Here is one more statistic: Half of the growth in King County comes from our own children. Without taking significant action now to make housing available and affordable, our children may have nowhere affordable to live.

Metropolitan King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert of Redmond serves as the council's human-services policy chairwoman. Russell Hokanson is CEO of the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors.

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