The signs of Southwest Washington’s continuing affordable housing crunch are easy to see.
Rental prices have soared, homelessness rates are still rising and the median price of a home in Clark County is now $525,000 — far beyond the reach of many of the county’s residents. But the Clark County Council is working to find solutions.
The council will hold a work session beginning at 9 a.m. on May 4 to review strategies outlined in the proposed Housing Options Study and Action Plan.
At its April 21 meeting, the county planning commission unanimously approved a recommendation to the county council to approve the plan and direct staff to begin implementation of the short-term strategies.
“There are a lot of things we can’t control. We can’t control interest rates, we can’t control the price of materials, we can’t control incomes. But what we can control, what we can play a part of, is helping to remove the barriers to affordable housing. I think this plan is that start,” said Planning Commissioner Bryan Halbert.
While there were some things in the plan Planning Commissioner Matt Swindell didn’t like or agree with, he said recommending the council move forward with the recommendations was about doing what’s best for everyone.
“Affordability is a moving target. … The best thing we can do is get out of the way, let free market figure out how best to do it,” Swindell said. “At the end of the day, it’s up to the consumer. The builders are going to go out and figure out what consumers want, and they’re going to build what the consumer wants.”
Following amendments made to the county’s development code in 2018 that allowed more flexibility in building accessory dwelling units, cottage housing and manufactured housing, the county council realized this wouldn’t be enough to solve the county’s burgeoning housing crisis.
In response, the council initiated work on the Housing Options Study and Action Plan with support from the Washington Department of Commerce. The goal was to identify existing challenges as well as “strategies to remove barriers and provide opportunities for affordable housing” to a variety of income levels within the unincorporated Vancouver Urban Growth Area, Community Planning Director Oliver Orjiako said during the planning commission meeting.
The action plan is broken into short-term, midterm and long-term strategies. According to Orjiako, some of the strategies identified will require a separate legislative approval process to be implemented, while others can be put in place by the council immediately.
“The recommended strategies include potential changes to the comprehensive plan, county code, zoning map and other, non-regulatory type of recommendations,” Jacqui Kamp, program manager for Community Planning, told the planning commission.
One example of a possible change to the county’s development code would be shifting from low-density residential areas to medium-density housing. The study found that low-density residential zones, typical for single-family homes, dominate unincorporated areas in both acreage and numbers of homes built.
“While development standards allow some modest variety … the relatively low densities and minimum lot sizes allowed in these zones limits both the number and variety of homes that can be developed,” the study found.
At the same time there were “significant opportunities” for infill (building new homes in existing neighborhoods) and new development of medium-density housing, such as townhomes, but there were not enough areas zoned for this type of housing.
Other strategies identified include coordinating transportation and housing, such as adopting appropriate densities along priority transit corridors; encouraging infill development as a first priority; coordinating housing with availability of public facilities; developing a variety of housing for people with special needs, intergenerational housing and senior citizens; and committing to a variety of housing types.
Expanding the county’s housing opportunities also means meeting the needs of Clark County’s aging population.
“Healthy communities for older adults are generally healthy communities for people of all ages,” the report says.
Recommendations include expanding the allowed first-floor footprint for cottage housing units to allow for accessible bedrooms and bathrooms, providing more options for middle housing types and reducing parking requirements for senior housing projects.
Following the council’s informational work session on May 4, a public hearing will be held at 6 p.m. on May 17. The public is welcome to attend both meetings, however there is no opportunity for public comment at the work session. Both meetings will be held in a hybrid format. Meetings can be attended in person at 1300 Franklin St., in Vancouver, or virtually via WebEx.
For information on how to join and participate in the meetings, go to clark.wa.gov/councilors/clark-county-council-meetings.
To review the Housing Options Study and Action Plan and to learn more about the project, go to clark.wa.gov/housingoptions.