A local environmental group that has fought urban sprawl for decades appears ready to focus more of its attention on affordable housing.
Friends of Clark County held a virtual discussion Thursday about the relation between land-use planning and affordable housing. Sue Marshall — the organization’s president — and Sierk Braam — CEO of Housing Initiative, a subsidiary of the Council for the Homeless — gave presentations.
The nonprofit has been involved in efforts to prevent development on rural, agricultural and forestland in the county since its founding in 1996.
In 2016, the Friends and Seattle-based Futurewise filed appeals, which were ultimately successful, to the state against Clark County’s plan to develop a 602-acre rural industrial land bank in Brush Prairie. The appeals argued in part that the land bank aided sprawl and failed to protect farmland.
Marshall said that the organization hopes to expand its efforts toward affordable housing, calling it “an important counterpoint to protection of rural lands.”
“We can’t look at the city of Vancouver to bear all of the responsibility for affordable housing,” Marshall said. “All of the cities and the county need to be responsible for that.”
Marshall also pointed to a history of racial inequity as part of the affordable housing issue, saying that the organization plans to advocate for fairness.
“There has been systemic racism, from the usurping of Indigenous people’s lands and the devastating impact that led to discriminating in housing and lending and economic investment,” Marshall said. “This systemic discrimination has very much been the basis of economic disparity for people of color.”
Roughly 32,000 rental households in Clark County qualify as low-income, Braam said. About 6,500 publicly subsidized housing units exist, leaving most renters to search the private market.
The fair market rent for a two-bedroom residence in the area is $1,495, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
A single parent making the state’s minimum wage of $13.50 per hour and paying that rental rate would spend most of his or her income on housing. That would leave just a few hundred dollars extra per month to spend on insurance, food, medical bills and child care, which typically costs hundreds of dollars per week by itself.
Braam said that, in the context of the Growth Management Act, those advocating for more affordable housing could focus on creating more buildable lands and removing zoning and code restraints.
“The stroke of a pen can create buildable land for apartments and for higher-density single-family homes,” Braam said. “We don’t have to expand the growth boundary to, necessarily, accomplish an increase of buildable land.”
Some of those barriers include high labor and overhead costs for developers, Braam said.
“You will have subcontractors that won’t bid on your job because they don’t want the headache of the paperwork, or if they do bid on it, they’re going to increase their cost enough to pay for staff to work through all of that paperwork,” Braam said.
Braam also mentioned the natural barriers to buildable lands on the West Coast, such as bodies of water and hills. He added that urban growth boundaries and wetland restrictions can increase housing prices.
At this point in the discussion, Braam noted the irony of making these points to an environmental group.
“I don’t want people to throw tomatoes at me,” Braam said. “This is not the group that’s going to like this as a bullet point.”
But Braam also said that when urban areas do grow, they also add to infrastructure and transportation costs.
In terms of zoning and codes, Braam said that the organization could focus on encouraging zones with multiple types of housing and commercial development, higher density within zones and fewer building code requirements. Fee waivers, expedited permitting, density bonuses and fewer parking regulations were also suggested.
“Every developer and their uncle is competing for the few multifamily zones that are available,” Braam said. “We are going to have to, I think, also help the building industry fight for some changes and, in some cases, fight for some changes in building codes.”
Braam floated the idea of eliminating single-family zoning, following the lead of states and cities like Oregon and Minneapolis. He said that such a policy wouldn’t need to outright ban single-family residences, but it could create more opportunities for high-density residences or complexes.
“If local groups like Friends of Clark County start pushing back or advising on the Growth Management Act regulations, I think this is something that would be worth looking at and educating ourselves on,” Braam said.