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News / Business / Clark County Business

Clark County housing developers face challenges due to environmental and zoning constraints

By Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter
Published: May 30, 2023, 6:09am
5 Photos
Apartments look over construction vehicles on a site Friday along Northeast 138th Avenue in Vancouver.
Apartments look over construction vehicles on a site Friday along Northeast 138th Avenue in Vancouver. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Clark County has an extensive bank of land throughout its various cities. Yet the same beloved landscapes of hills and water that grace the region are some of the barriers shortchanging developers’ ability to build affordable homes.

There isn’t a community in Washington that isn’t impacted by an affordable housing crisis. Only 22 affordable homes exist for every 100 low-income renters in Vancouver, according to a National Low-Income Housing Coalition report. Some may wonder: why can’t we just build more affordable homes?

Local developers say it is challenging due to various constraints, not the least of which is limited land availability due to environmental constrictions and zoning.

“Just over the last couple of years, (developable land) has become very challenging to find, and it is unpredictable. Nobody knows when housing inventory could be created because they’re really at the mercy of land availability,” said Patrick Ginn, CEO of Ginn Group.

Ginn said that there are multiple layers to which land can be constructed: zoning, utility restrictions and environmental constriction, to name a few.

The three variables can be a tricky game of Catch-22.

Although to the average eye, a piece of land may look like a perfect location for more affordable homes like duplexes — it may not be zoned for that specific development or not have stable soils.

“It’d be hard to overstate the value and the importance of land for affordable housing. People don’t realize that you look at a piece of land and it is probably zoned commercial or low-density, or residential,” said Ginn, “The jurisdictions are getting better, like creating different plans or options or codes — but it’s still pretty limited.”

Is land availability killing the American dream?

There are various affordable homes — subsidized housing for very low-income people, affordable at market rate (around $300,000) and middle housing — more moderately priced homes like condominiums, cottage clusters or triplexes.

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“All of these types are based on having land. Whether you’re producing income-restricted units or market-rate units — if there’s land available, then we can take the time and go through the process of developing (affordable homes),” Ginn said.

Most areas in Vancouver are zoned “low-density,” designed for single-family homes, excluding many affordable options for the average working family — zoned at medium or high density.

When available land pops up, the units built on them can have a hefty price tag due to the competitive market for developers. Ginn said that more land availability would stabilize home prices or lower them because developers have less competition.

And lack of land availability dives deeper than fewer homes to shop for when navigating the market. For some, it stilts generational wealth through real estate. Ginn said there is less opportunity for residents to buy a starter home that they can sell down the road and buy an upgraded home.

“To think that our cheapest house is around $400,000. But imagine if they could have a $300,000 home, start there, build that equity and start that cycle (of homeownership),” Ginn said.

The impact of limited buildable land can also impact the advancement of Clark County’s economy. Ginn shared a recent story he heard from another developer of a Portland company looking to relocate to Clark County. When scoping out the area’s housing landscape, the owner noticed the abundance of apartments and minimal affordable single-family homes. The company owner decided to move elsewhere because he wanted his employees to build long-term roots in the area so that they would be invested and stay at the company. If they could only rent, they would be more likely to go elsewhere.

“The most important driving factor was housing availability for its employees,” Ginn said. “If you reflect back to Fisher Investments coming to the area. Back in 2010-2012, there was a lot of housing inventory still built up and that convinced those employees to move up from the Bay Area where housing was very expensive, and unattainable.”

Hope on the horizon

But Wood said that he believes Clark County’s zoning is finally catching up to land availability policies in Washington — which points to a healthier and potentially more affordable future.

Currently, in Clark County, duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes can only be built in the R-17 zoning district, which makes up only a sliver of Vancouver. But that will soon change.

Ginn and Wood pointed to recent legislation like House Bill 1110. The recently passed law lifts zoning laws in Washington that prohibit multidwelling houses and provide more middle housing options for residents.

Yet there are still some constrictions.

“The recent bill allows for fourplexes, but that’s only in cities. So it’s not going to apply to broader Clark County. (The bill) is also going to take two years to implement, and then to run a (development) project is going to take another two years to deliver. So we’re four years out before we even make a dent,” Ginn said.

But the legislation will still make a dent in the county, said Ginn and Wood — it will just take time.

“Policy takes time and then development takes time. Even if we were able to expedite the process, it still takes time to develop, build and deliver (a unit),” Ginn said.

However, Clark County officials are working together and recognizing the need for more available land.

“Agencies, private industry, public entities, are coming together to try and solve these issues,” he said. “It is definitely a top priority.”

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.