County council approves action plan for affordable housing

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Clark County now has a plan in place to guide strategies intended to address the housing crisis.

During its May 17 meeting, the Clark County Council voted unanimously to approve a Housing Options Study and Action Plan. Almost two years in the making, the study’s main purpose is to develop ways to encourage development of affordable housing while creating a variety of housing types and cost levels, Clark County Community Planning Director Oliver Orjiako said.

The study specifically looked at land in Vancouver’s urban growth area, a designation given to land where the city must expand first by annexation per state law. The area generally extends north from Vancouver city limits including Orchards, Hazel Dell and Salmon Creek.

Program manager Jacqui Kamp said the plan will be used to inform policies in the county’s comprehensive growth management plan and guide implementation. Aiding in the process was an 18-member project advisory group representing housing developers, real estate, schools, and local government as well as specific communities like youth, the aging population, those experiencing homelessness and communities of color.

Kamp noted the plan approval didn’t require any changes to county code or comprehensive planning, and its strategies are “still at a conceptual level.” She said any changes implemented will require feedback by interested parties.

Steve Faust, one of two consultants for the plan, addressed the inequalities found through the study. Between 2012 to 2019, rents increased 23% while wages only rose 12%. Average home sales price per square foot of lot rose 95%.

Close to half of the housing units in the project area either under construction or that will be needed by 2035 will be considered affordable by incomes greater than 120% of the average median income, according to key findings.

Buildable residential land is mostly low-density at 84%. In the project area, about 60% of households include one to two people, Faust said, but 70% of the housing stock are three to four-bedroom units. He said fees on development aren’t scaled to support smaller housing units. 

Faust said the plan intends to encourage middle-income development, develop strategies for low income housing, encourage housing type diversity including sizes, especially for one to two person households, and to develop housing options near services like transit or encouraging development of those services.

Elizabeth Decker, another consultant for the plan, said a number of recommendations in the plan could be completed in the short term. Some of those include making changes to low and medium-density residential zones to increase the number of buildable units, and the introduction of multiplex housing like duplexes in those zones.

Other recommendations include the adjustment of parking requirements to allow for more housing units, and allowing affordable multi-family housing with no commercial component in all commercial zones.

Kamp said with approval of the plan by the council, staff can begin implementation on short-term strategies which could be completed in a year. 

Of the nearly dozen people who testified at the meeting, all voiced some level of support for the approval of the plan. 

Representatives of the city of Vancouver, the Vancouver Housing Authority and the Council for the Homeless strongly supported the plan. Representatives of real estate and development interests were more cautious about some parts of the plan.

A specific concern they raised is on proposed height limits and lot coverage maximums in a planned “compact subdivision” zone. 

Eric Golemo, a member of the county’s development and engineering advisory board, said for the proposed limits, “mathematically it doesn’t work.” He also pushed back on design standards which discourage garages and encourage alleys, something he said should be market-driven, not codified.

Justin Wood, speaking on behalf of the Clark County Association of Realtors, asked for the county to “be as permissive as possible” when it came to housing restrictions. He referenced a March report by ECONorthwest which stated Washington had the fewest housing units per household of any state.

“A chronic underproduction of housing in the state is to blame and this will be the first of many steps to alleviate the situation,” Wood said.

As part of the plan, county community planning will include annual updates on the implementation of recommendations they move forward on. 

Kathy Neary, a resident in the project area who testified, said that monitoring will allow the county to track data to see how close they get to the housing goals.

“I encourage you to set some goals for building affordable housing here in Clark County,” Neary said. “I hope you will aim for every person in Clark County having a place to call home.”

The county council was in agreement that the plan would be a benefit as it addresses its housing crisis.

“First and foremost, I want to approve this plan and move forward,” Councilor Gary Medvigy said.

Medvigy said concerns from the development community over restrictions on building are important to heed. He said he hopes the county will be “nimble and flexible” as it decides which recommendations to implement.

“We need to open up the aperture, every aperture on every kind of housing that would fit in different locations,” Medvigy said.

Council chair Karen Bowerman agreed with Neary’s comments about goals, especially about tracking how successful the county is in creating affordable housing.

“I emphasize creating because it’s not really here now,” Bowerman said.

She also stressed a need to keep a variety of housing options open, recalling testimony which expressed concerns over a lack of yard space based on plan recommendations.

“We need to balance on what we are doing so that questions like where are the kids supposed to play really have an answer, even though not everyone we know is looking for backyard space,” Bowerman said.

Councilor Julie Olson noted the approval of the plan didn’t change county code. Olson said the council will have discretion on which parts it implements.

“We’re not going to take everything that has been recommended to us tonight and just run with it, but it provides a foundation for us to begin to really look at opportunities to provide better housing choices here in Clark County,” Olson said.



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