Sound familiar? Report shows affordable housing crunch in Skagit County

The Skagit Council of Governments discussed the first draft of its housing inventory report Wednesday, more than a year after the report was commissioned.

The report highlights the major issue with Skagit County’s housing market: demand is outpacing supply, forcing the county’s growing low-income population into housing it cannot afford.

The report, assembled by Seattle consulting firm ECONorthwest, lays out five strategies the county and city governments can use to stabilize the housing market.

“You have a huge supply crunch here,” said Morgan Shook, project director with ECONorthwest.

The report encourages cities to examine their zoning policies to increase the number of units allowed per acre. This helps housing developers create projects that are financially feasible.

Further, it suggests looking into incentives for housing developers. Specifically, Shook said cities should consider the Multifamily Property Tax Incentive, a state program that cuts property taxes for up to 12 years on certain projects.

Another finding of the report is the lack of townhouse communities.

“There’s a real dearth of medium-density projects, with two (to) eight units in them,” he said. “Housing that doesn’t look like a single-family home, but isn’t a massive complex.”

Such projects would fit in well with the county’s values, he said, and would be a good fit for the county’s underdeveloped land.

The problem, Shook said, is that much of the land within city boundaries that can be easily developed is already taken, and there are strict density restrictions on unincorporated land because of the state Growth Management Act.

The report suggests finding ways to annex ideal development sites just outside cities such as Mount Vernon.

Subsidized housing for very low-income populations, Shook said, will require help from governments. The report emphasizes continued partnerships with government and nonprofit housing developers in identifying funding and affordable land.

The document’s data on the housing market backs up the views expressed over the years by many elected officials and affordable housing advocates – that cities need to address the regulatory barriers to building multifamily housing projects.

The housing vacancy rate in the county is about 1 percent. A low rate means prospective renters have few choices, giving landlords more power over setting prices.

Seventy percent of the county’s housing stock is single-family, compared to 18 percent multifamily.

The county is on track this decade to produce the fewest new housing units than any other decade in the past 40 years.

However, there has never been a document such as this that collects that data in one place, as SCOG Executive Director Kevin Murphy said in an interview when the report was commissioned last year.

“We want to put objective data around our perception, so that perception isn’t driving all of our goals,” he said in that interview.

Murphy said comment will be accepted from cities and the county, and he hopes to have the final report completed in September.