Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature agree our state needs more places for people to live. A lot more. It doesn’t matter much whether they’re single-family homes or structures ending in “-plex.”
This past week a mix of Senate and House members from both sides of the political aisle put more than a dozen housing-related bills on the table. While I prefer the policy in some over others, these bills as a package would move our state in a positive direction.
Then there’s Gov. Jay Inslee.
He says Washington needs another million housing units in the next 17 years. I won’t debate that.
His solution is for the Legislature to fund the construction of housing units through a $4 billion referendum that would have to be put on the ballot — a plan that borrows money outside the debt limit set by our state constitution.
This plan, subsidizing just a third of the cost of each housing unit, would produce only a small fraction of the 1 million homes needed by 2044. And of course, the taxpayers would be on the hook to pay off the $4 billion debt plus the interest over the next 30 years.
Numbers aside, it is more troubling that the governor clearly thinks government is the solution to the home shortage. It is an “obvious fact,” Inslee recently declared, that the “private market will not produce all the housing units our state needs.”
I disagree. It seems more obvious that the people of Washington oppose another state-run housing scheme. They wonder what has come from the many billions of dollars already directed toward creating housing and fighting homelessness.
The governor should realize a million new housing units simply do not happen unless the private sector, meaning the building industry in our state, is front and center.
That said, there is something government, and only government, can do to help.
Government can get out of the way.
That does not mean abolishing county building departments. It means reforming regulations that discourage creative and thoughtful development because they cost so much time and money.
The Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW) keeps track of how regulatory factors like zoning, permits and energy codes drive up the cost of construction. BIAW’s latest calculation has regulatory costs accounting for a whopping $134,354 of what it takes to build a median-priced home in Washington. That’s crazy.
We must do better. Here are just two examples of how legislators can begin to turn the situation around this year.
Senate Bill 5473 would establish timelines for local governments to process applications for project permits. Those are the land-use, environmental, building and other permits that are all part of modern land development. Having certainty about when a permit decision will come can be as important as knowing when that truckload of building materials will arrive. This bill has bipartisan backing and has already had a public hearing.
A bill I sponsored, SB 5609, would require counties, cities and towns to approve the construction of enough new homes to eliminate their proportional share of the state’s total housing shortage. In short, a community would have to make building permits available at a level proportional to its population. This bill also has strong bipartisan support.
What we don’t need is for those who talk about the lack of affordable housing to simultaneously and hypocritically promote policies that make homes more difficult and expensive to build. The governor’s crusade against gas heat is an example. So is the idea of adding a “climate change” layer to the permitting process.
Government has a role in solving the housing shortage, but government is clearly not the solution. Let’s unleash the private sector instead.
Sen. John Braun of Centralia serves the 20th Legislative District, which spans parts of four counties from Yelm to Vancouver. He became Senate Republican leader in 2020.
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