There are few public issues people find common ground on these days, but one of them, especially in the Methow Valley, is the need for affordable housing.
Less settled is what that ubiquitous term actually means in practical application. Is it possible to define it more precisely — or even approximately — in a way that is helpful to us in solving the housing supply and cost challenges in our community?
We certainly are trying, in the public, private and nonprofit sectors, to come up with some short- and long-term approaches. Those will vary depending on who is involved, but all have the same hoped-for outcome: increasing the local housing supply in a way that supports a thriving local population.
For government-subsidized housing programs, there are specific income guidelines for residents, but even those can be vague. Here’s what we picked up on Wikipedia: “Affordable housing is housing which is deemed affordable to those with a household income at or below the median as rated by the national government or a local government by a recognized housing affordability index.” Got that?
Apart from that formulaic approach, questions remain: Affordable for whom? People living by themselves? Single parents? Families? We have to think about all of them. According to what community standards for neighborhoods? Will it ever be possible for there to be affordable housing that’s not subsidized or “incentivised” somehow? Will there ever be such a thing as “market rate” affordable housing? Does affordable housing mostly have to happen in towns, where density makes it more achievable? Does “affordable” imply “lesser?”
Or, in frustration, will we be reduced to a tautology: It’s affordable if you can afford it. And if you can find it.
We’re optimistic that the valley can coalesce around conversations about those questions and work toward answers. We also believe the need for affordable housing is potentially a game-changing challenge for this community. We need to be flexible and perhaps a bit inventive. There is much to consider.
Density seems to be the driving principle of affordable housing. It’s hard to make it pencil out any other way. Does that mean all affordable housing will be in clustered developments?
All the valley’s current housing proposals with at least an affordability component, private and nonprofit, are in the towns of Twisp and Winthrop. The McKinney Ridge project (near Mazama) developed by the Methow Housing Trust is at this point an anomaly that may not be replicable in many other locations in the valley. Established, developed neighborhoods like Edelweiss, Pine Forest and the Twin Lakes area are not likely to be considered for affordable housing forays.
Nonprofits have a huge role in promoting and developing affordable options. They typically rely on grants, generous donations or other models such as that successfully employed by the Methow Housing Trust. For-profit developers usually need considerations such as reduced development fees, exemptions from some zoning restrictions or less-stringent construction requirements to make the numbers work.
In various ways, we’ve been identifying and quantifying the need in the valley for some time. A current state-funded study being conducted by the towns of Twisp and Winthrop will help further refine our knowledge of what’s out there, and outline some possible actions.
Thankfully, this community is taking the need seriously — it is a matter of self-preservation, after all — in a number of ways related to housing, land use, and community well-being. It’s not just about putting people inside of four walls and under a roof. We also need to factor in things like transportation, amenities, ambience, air quality and dignity.
If it was easy, we would have done it by now. But thanks to lot of local efforts, momentum is on our side — more so than in some other Western communities that are desperately scrambling to make affordable housing part of their planning, if it’s not already too late. (At the state level, earlier this week Gov. Jay Inslee announced that a key component of his 2023-25 budget proposal is a plan to borrow $4 billion to fund efforts to build affordable housing and shelters in Washington.)
As we move forward, let’s remember the things we agree on and the goals we share. If anyplace can figure this out, it’s the Methow Valley.