Published February 2006

Affordable housing remains
out of reach for many

Affordable housing is an intrinsic part of a stable community and a healthy economy, yet hundreds of families across Snohomish County struggle to afford this basic necessity — even as the county’s economy shows signs of continued rejuvenation.

In 2005, unemployment dropped below 5 percent, coming in at 4.8 percent in December. The county’s retail sector got a boost from the new Seattle Premium Outlets and an expanded Everett Mall. Its aerospace industry also experienced a stellar year, with Boeing reporting a record number of sales.

But 2005 also proved to be a year when the dream of homeownership remained just that for many as home prices continued to soar out of the realm of affordability for those looking to become first-time homeowners and the inventory of available housing fell.

As the year ended, the combined median price for condominiums and single-family homes in the county was $299,000, up nearly 20 percent from December 2004, according to the Northwest Multiple Listing Service. At the same time, the number of active listings fell nearly 10 percent.

For condos, often a starting point for first-time homebuyers, the median price was $194,000, up nearly 10 percent from December 2004, and the number of active listings fell a staggering 41 percent.

While the continued rise in value of residential real estate is wonderful news for those already invested, the dramatic increase in price during the past few years has created an ever-widening chasm for those who would otherwise make the leap into homeownership. And though lower-than-normal interest rates have, for a time, bridged that gap for some, they cannot be counted on to last indefinitely.

The issue of affordable housing is not, however, limited to homeownership, as a new report released by the National Low Income Housing Coalition shows.

According to the report “Out of Reach 2005,” the estimated wage needed to rent a two-bedroom apartment in Snohomish County affordably — without paying more than 30 percent of income on housing — is $16.15 per hour. Unfortunately, the average wage earned by a renter in the county is $12.43.

In order for that renter to afford the fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment, he or she would have to work 52 hours per week, 52 weeks per year, according to the report.

For senior citizens relying solely on their monthly Supplemental Security Income — an estimated $579 in Snohomish County — the situation is even more dire.

In order for housing to be affordable, rent would have to top in at $174 — some $524 less than the county’s fair-market rent for a one-bedroom apartment, according to the report.

Such disparity comes at a cost, says Shane Rock, executive director of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance.

“People will choose to cut all other corners before losing their homes — they won’t go to the doctor, turn on the heat, maintain their car or eat a normal-sized meal ... until it becomes an emergency,” he says.

The price, he adds, is paid in emergency room visits, difficulty keeping a job and malnutrition.

For the community at large, the dearth of affordable housing also comes at a cost, as those priced out of the market look elsewhere to live and work. As a quality-of-life issue, affordable housing plays a part in attracting and retaining employers.

Unfortunately, pointing out the affordable-housing conundrum is a lot easier than solving it, as the problem touches on such thorny issues as land use, permitting and development costs, among others.

Its solution, therefore, must include a partnership of understanding between government, which regulates land-use policy; developers, who bear the initial cost in time and money; and the public itself, which must begin to perceive housing as more than just traditional single-family homes on large, suburban lots or high-rise, urban apartments.

Only with such innovative thinking — and a commitment to solving the problem — from all sides will affordable housing become a reality.

— Kimberly Hilden, SCBJ Assistant Editor

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© 2006 The Daily Herald Co., Everett, WA