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State Passes Numerous Housing Bills - Affordable Housing Solutions

Our State’s Legislative Team during this recent session passed numerous bills that will benefit individuals in desperate need of affordable housing. These bills have now been signed by the Governor and will be set into motion this year. These bills will aid San Juan County in addressing our local affordable housing issues.

As I have written in the past, we could use future Accessory Dwelling Units (“ADU”) as a method of addressing affordable housing in our community. House Bill 1337 makes it easier to build ADUs in urban growth areas. The bill requires cities and counties to adopt zoning and development regulations allowing ADUs. In addition, there is no owner occupancy requirement and allows jurisdictions to restrict the use of ADUs for short-term rentals.

These ADUs could be rented out to members of our community needing housing. As the ADUs do not offer as much privacy or size as a single-family dwelling, their rents will be lower and more affordable. The rental income will also benefit the property owners as some of our citizens struggle financially.

House Bill 1110 requires certain GMA planning cities, based on size, to allow the construction of middle housing types such as duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, and town homes within residential zoned areas. Similar to our Rocky Bay Affordable Housing complex on Roche Harbor Road, or the complex off Leeward Lane. However, this regulation may allow the private sector to construct similar complexes not just the Government backed programs. There are some population requirements, and our County may not qualify; however, if our County desired to change the zoning to allow for some multi-family structures in certain neighborhoods within residential zoned areas, it may be possible.

House Bill 1042 enables the creation of housing in existing, under-utilized buildings in areas zoned for commercial and mixed-uses and provides limits on a local jurisdiction’s ability to approve and condition such projects. It also provides direction to the State Building Code Council to waive the energy code for unchanged portions of an existing building but requires new dwelling units comply with the current energy code.

San Juan Island may have some commercial zoned buildings that are under-utilized. Of course, town would be the deciding factor for most of these commercial zoned properties; however, if they would approve the use, the private sector would most likely have interest in a project to create more affordable rental housing in town. This would not necessarily have to be a government funded program.

I love the purpose of SB 5290. This legislation provides project permit streamlining requirements, creating efficiencies and predictability for both non-profit and for-profit builders. Key components include: 1) Permit processing improvements, including time frame for project application completeness for review and permit application review time periods; 2) Requirement for jurisdictions to submit an annual performance report for housing permit applications as listed permit types to Commerce and post on the jurisdiction’s website; 3) Options for actions to further streamline permit processes; 4) Commerce to develop a consolidated permit review grant program for eligible local governments; and 5) Commerce to convene a digital permitting process work group.

If you have applied for a construction permit in the last 3 years, you understand the importance of SB 5290. Some counties are considering sub-contracting out their permit approval process to qualified service providers in order to expedite the process. Is that an option here?


Washington State ranks 50 out of 50 states for the number of housing units as a ratio to the number of families. We can expect continued population growth for the State and some of those people will relocate to San Juan County. It might be a weather migration or just a State Income Tax Avoidance Plan; regardless, our population in the state will continue to rise.

The State finally laid the groundwork for its cities and counties to step up and accept the responsibility of affordable housing whether it be rentals or purchases. I hope that San Juan County government does their part.

We've always said we don't want to become a Martha's Vineyard or Jackson Hole, but we continue to pass rules and regulations that make construction take longer and cost more to develop in the islands. Per several General Contractors that I have spoken with, the cost of construction is currently in the range of $600-$700 per foot for a medium quality home. The land costs are not included in the price per foot range cited above.

The no growth agenda, that we've been on supported by the attitude “I've already got mine” needs to be challenged. Diversification in our community equates to all income levels.

Our County needs to seriously consider some of the options that the state is passing in these bills. I hope the days where I am in a public meeting where somebody asks if we can just roll up the drawbridge or pretend, we are a campground that's full and not let anybody else come here are behind us. We need diversification in our demographics for our community to be balanced.

I'm sure we can manage our pristine environment with affordable housing so that our retailers, restaurant owners, schools, health care, construction industry and other businesses can hire labor. The work force actually needs to live in the islands and it must be affordable to them.

As I am in real estate on the front lines, I can say that some buyers have reconsidered or postponed their purchase in the islands due to affordability. Some made a change of plans due to the escalated prices; they can no longer afford to purchase whether it was for a primary residence, second home, investment or retirement home. Some members of our community were forced to relocate off the Island.

I have always supported property rights and people should be able to build an ADU on their property, and if they desire, rent it out on a long-term basis to citizens that live in our community. I challenge our County to create regulations that will allow this to happen with a set of rules that will match our rural lifestyles. Perhaps 1000 maximum square feet guest home, on lots larger than 1 acre, not limited to within 100’ from main house and must be supported by the main house water and septic systems; these rules would be a workable solution.

The end product would be attractive as it would most likely mirror the construction of the main home and the construction costs would be much less than the construction of an affordable rental home on a single-family lot as the property owner already owns the land and has installed the utilities.

Due to the smaller lot sizes, an ADU in town would be higher density but people that live in town expect that and are accepting of it. The benefit of being able to walk to their employment and town amenities is the offset.

The City of Kirkland, I admit, a much larger metropolitan area, is creating a program to allow their citizens to choose from one of the uniform previously approved plans for an ADU which will allow them to issue a permit in an incredible short time frame. I think they thought out of the box, and this is a great solution to expedite the creation of new ADUs.

Perhaps some of our Affordable Housing Excise Tax that has been collected over the past several years on every real estate closing could be utilized to create uniform approved ADU plans for County and Town.

It is hindsight to ponder if our affordable housing for rentals would be less problematic if the Guest House Regulations hadn’t changed back in the 1990s. No matter what, we need to focus on what the solution is now and think out of the box. We can still maintain the rural nature of our Islands and at the same time provide more affordable housing before we price our island community members out of the County.

As with all my articles, the opinions expressed herein are solely my own. These opinions are based on my personal experience, observations, and from interviewing and reviewing both public and non-public information sources. Anyone interested in reviewing the bills can obtain a copy from official state sources.

Written by:

Merri ann Simonson

Coldwell Banker San Juan Islands Inc



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