Recently the Spokane City Council had an interesting night. They passed an increase to sales taxes to pay for more affordable housing yet voted down a market-rate apartment complex within the city limits. Confused? Affordable housing is a nonpartisan issue, yet through agendas, complex policy and the inability of our elected officials to take corrective action, we will be facing this issue for the foreseeable future.
It all starts with the adoption of the Growth Management Act (GMA) in 1990. The goal is admirable: Stop urban sprawl, promote density, protect the environment, and more cost-effectively deliver utilities and public transportation. To be fair, the GMA has provided improvement in most of these areas, but after 30 years, it needs to be significantly updated. Luckily, the Washington Legislature will be reviewing this policy in the upcoming session.
One of the most important aspects for the Spokane area in this review will be changing the calculation of the act's boundary lines, which is a major contributor to our housing issue. We are experiencing population growth like our area has not seen in decades, if not longer. This growth creates demand and drives prices up. With little room to build within our boundary, most of the new housing development is going in right across the border in Idaho. Thus, without a policy change, we are going to end up with much of the infrastructure impacts of population growth and little of the revenue to offset it.
For the city of Spokane, which takes up a significant amount of the GMA's density calculation, our policies have fallen behind even though our investment has not. Our city uses a strategy called "centers and corridors" as the main tool to promote density, mixed-use centers and walkable neighborhoods. You can see the investment in the Perry District, North Monroe, East Sprague and Hillyard. What is missing around these investments is zoning changes to allow density to happen. Around most of these centers, zoning is largely limited to single-family residential. You will never get density without that change, and to get that zoning change, leaders will have to take on the neighborhoods.
One of the truths during my time on the Spokane City Council was that as soon as someone buys a home, they do not want the area to change. They want to keep the neighborhood they bought into. I get this mentality. I am no different in many ways, but as part of our housing solution, zoning will have to change to free up more space such as in unused industrial areas and to allow density to occur around our centers and corridors.
How does our City Council address these challenging housing policy issues? Raise your taxes, of course.
Rather than do the heavy lifting of advocating for GMA policy and boundary reform or even zoning, which is within their control, and let market forces do their work, they chose to raise taxes. The challenge with this action is that it does not get to the heart of the issue. In fact, you spend more and get less. With the regulations tied to accepting state and local funding for housing, it drives the cost up about 60 percent. You get less housing inventory at a significant cost increase.
Affordable homeownership for a community is a critical backbone to its success, livability and quality of life. It is also one of the most important tools to create generational wealth and move people out of poverty. Increasing affordable housing will take real leadership from our state and local elected officials, who will at times have to challenge their own political alliances to get to the best outcome for the people who need that affordable housing. ♦
Michael Allen, a business and entrepreneurship professor at Spokane Community College, is a former associate athletic director at Eastern Washington University. A longtime Republican, he previously served six years on the Spokane City Council.