By Scot Domergue
As noted in the recent Methow Valley News article “Room for Disagreement,” the Twisp Planning Commission is considering requiring a minimum home size of 1,200 square feet in areas zoned R-1, 800 square feet in R-2, and 320 square feet for R- 3, the least-restrictive of our residential zones. The article also reviews recent history and controversy over a very small home being built in one neighborhood.
The Methow Valley has a serious affordable housing problem. We residents in general and our recreation/tourism and retirement economy need many service workers. These are low-wage jobs. They don’t pay enough to afford the housing costs here, nor to make commuting from lower housing cost places like Okanogan worthwhile. The high cost of housing along with predominantly low-wage jobs makes it more difficult for young people who grow up here to stay. Many retired folks with limited incomes also suffer.
The Methow Housing Trust is making efforts to address this problem, but the relatively few homes they can build will serve only a very limited segment of the population, including only a tiny portion of the service workers we need.
Look at the help wanted ads in the Methow Valley News. Do we want our businesses to be able to find the employees they need? Do we want local youth to be able to stay here? Do we want the many retired people who love this valley to be able to reside here, even if they don’t bring large assets with them from elsewhere?
Twisp seems the best place to locate more-dense and less-expensive housing to serve lower-income people and service workers. Twisp has the needed services, including transportation (TranGO). And I would far rather have a few more densely populated neighborhoods in Twisp than see every 5 acres in the Methow Valley with a house!
There is enormous unmet demand for small, low-cost housing. I own two small dwellings (a mother-in-law apartment of about 425 square feet attached to a larger house that I rent separately) and a very small house (under 300 square feet). Whenever I put a notice on the electronic bulletin board I receive many calls within a couple of days and have lease signed and deposit in hand as soon as we can complete the paperwork. I live, quite happily, in the very small house, renting it only when I go traveling for long periods of time. It is my favorite of all the places I’ve lived in my 70 years. Many “tiny” houses are even smaller.
Restrictive zoning and extra building requirements make housing more expensive! Is there any reason for them other than keeping people with lower incomes out of our neighborhoods and town?
The planning commission is also considering adopting the requirement of a “substantial foundation” (meaning a concrete perimeter foundation) for all dwellings. There are many homes in Twisp with stone or pier-block foundations that have done just fine for many, many decades. Is there any real problem with small size or skirted pier-block foundation if structurally sound and with utilities and other basic aspects of functional housing satisfied?
Perhaps we should make it easier to create small, affordable dwellings for one or two people rather than making it more difficult! Many other places are doing this. For example, Seattle now encourages Accessory Dwelling Units. Twisp allows these only if the lot is almost large enough for two completely separate, full-size dwellings (R-1 and R-2) or half again as large for R-3.
There is a nationwide “tiny house” movement. These homes are often under 200 square feet, often built by their owners/inhabitants. When circumstances change they can easily be moved or replaced with a larger, more-conventional dwelling. Many young people as well as older, retired folks are using this approach to enable them to own their homes.
We don’t need — and should avoid — home size requirements beyond those defined in the uniform building code related to minimum livability standards. This is particularly true for our least restrictive R-3 zone.
Let’s be kind, helpful and supportive of our less-wealthy neighbors and potential neighbors. Let’s enable people to live with less consumption of resources and less negative impacts on our environment.
Scot Domergue lives in Twisp.