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News / Opinion / Columns

Franz: Leverage public lands

Use our state residential lands to provide much-needed housing

By Hilary Franz
Published: February 19, 2024, 6:01am

Tonight, like every other night, too many of our neighbors will sleep in a tent, a car, a shelter, or on a sidewalk.

At the same time, too many of our neighbors who do have roofs over their heads are struggling with astronomically high rents.

And it’s not just happening in Seattle, Spokane or Vancouver. Communities like Lynden, Port Townsend and Battle Ground face some of the least affordable housing in the country. The affordable housing crisis isn’t a problem local government can solve on its own — it demands a laser focus at every level of government.

I know what it’s like to struggle with housing. Growing up there were times my family moved from one place to another. I know the feeling of anxiety and despair that housing uncertainty can cause not just for a parent, but for a child as well.

In much of Washington, even a stable job with good pay doesn’t mean you can afford a home or afford the rent. Unfortunately, in many communities, 40 percent of people are cost-burdened, which means they are spending over 30 percent of their income on housing. How do you save for a down payment when your rent is already eating up half your paycheck or more?

Nobody deserves to experience the pit in their stomach and constant worry that comes with unstable housing.

So I’m proposing we use our state residential lands to provide much-needed housing in our communities and to help bring housing costs down.

Price and availability of buildable land is one of the biggest factors driving housing costs. Using state-owned lands for housing takes that cost factor away. This brings down development costs, which can lower rents, and it is also a great way to infill housing development and take pressure off our forests and farmlands, which continue to be under enormous pressure from sprawl.

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And we already have the land. The public owns it.

Across Washington, the Department of Natural Resource has more than 3,000 acres of vacant land within cities, currently not generating any revenue for our trust beneficiaries. By making it easier to build housing on those parcels, we can increase supply, drive down costs for homeowners, and reduce our statewide deficit of 340,000 affordable homes. All while making money for schools, libraries and hospitals that our state lands already support.

By investing $10 million today, we can unlock the potential for more than 700 units of permanently affordable homes across the state, from Aberdeen to Vancouver to Spokane, bringing homes to low-income families in the communities where they live, work, learn and play.

It would also let us build a portfolio of build-ready sites to streamline development so we can get this new housing built and filled as fast as possible.

This is new work for the Department of Natural Resources. Since statehood, we have made billions for our schools and communities by sustainably managing our natural resource lands and commercial lands. But as our housing crisis continues to grow, it’s up to everyone to do what we can to make sure our neighbors have dry, safe places to lay their heads at night.

We’ve already started down this path.

We’re working with South Puget Sound Habitat for Humanity to build 120 affordable single-family homes on 20 acres in Thurston County. These homes will help families and seniors priced out of other housing options, helping 400 of our neighbors have more secure housing.

We’re also working with Kitsap County to develop housing on 27 acres in Silverdale, providing workforce housing near transit and job centers, minimizing sprawl onto our valuable natural resource lands and waters. This means children will be able to stay in their schools, and parents will have stability to earn more, save more, and provide more for their families and their future.

But we have to do more, and we have to do it fast.

I have committed the Department of Natural Resources to this effort, and I will continue to leverage our public lands for the benefit of all of us.

Our “all hands, all lands, all together” approach bent the curve when it comes to catastrophic fires. With foresight and cooperation among communities, nonprofits and public agencies, “all hands, all lands, all together” can also help ensure no more children have to worry about where they’re sleeping tonight.


Hilary Franz is Washington’s public lands commissioner and oversees the Department of Natural Resources.

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