March 24, 2022
Affordable housing—however defined—is in short supply in Skagit County
Lauren Gallup

Change from the ground up: Martha’s Place, under construction on College Way in Mount Vernon, is the result of code and zoning changes to allow for permanent housing providing residents with medical and other supportive services. The project is one of many ways Skagit County jurisdictions are addressing the need for more affordable housing—of all types. (Amy Nelson photo © 2022)

March 24, 2022
Affordable housing—however defined—is in short supply in Skagit County
Lauren Gallup

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Skagit County is growing steadily and surely—and facing a shortage of affordable housing. 

What qualifies as “affordable” housing is based on multiple factors, and depends on whom you’re talking to: first-time home buyers, realtors, city and county officials, advocates for the homeless, large households, commuters who seek rural beauty or service-industry wage earners who want to live near to where they work.

First-time home buyers in Skagit County have seen home prices rise steeply. In 2021, the median home price was $500,000, an 18.5% increase from the previous year, said Shelah Inman, realtor with Brown MacMillen Real Estate in Burlington.

By comparison, however, prices overall are lower in Skagit than in nearby counties for single-family homes, Inman said. “Everything below us in Snohomish County and in Whatcom to the north is considerably higher than we are. So we are still [in] high demand.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s OnTheMap application, nearly six out of 10 working county residents work outside the county. Of those working in the county, almost half live elsewhere. 

On the agenda: growth

The county has been at a roughly 1% growth rate per year, with a 2020 population of 130,450, according to the Washington State Office of Financial Management.

Using demographic information, the county can project what the need will be for various types of housing. Peter Gill, long-range planning manager for Skagit County Planning and Development Services, estimates the housing need in the next 20 years is going to be for multifamily development and affordable rental properties.

That estimate is based on the continuing trend of people relocating to the county from areas with higher incomes, along the rise in home prices.

Employee housing is the most important economic development issue facing recruiting companies and keeping industry in the county, said Aaron Weinberger, economic development and external relations manager with the Economic Development Alliance of Skagit County.

In looking at possible options, the county had proposed to amend its comprehensive plan to allow FCCs (fully contained communities created outside of urban growth areas which would have allowed the county to further develop areas for more housing and housing types. The study into this proposal was suspended in January.

The county is also seeking to amend its comprehensive plan to allow for building more single-family and multifamily dwellings. The county estimates that about 3,000 of the new housing units will be built in rural areas in the next 20 years. Although most growth will be in the county’s urban growth areas, the county can assist in rural single-family dwellings including manufactured homes, accessory dwelling units and farmworker housing to help meet the general market demand and a share of the affordable unit demand.

Cycle of homelessness

A household spending more than 30% of its income on housing is considered “cost-burdened” by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development. In 2016, over 20% of rental households in the county were categorized as “cost burdened” or “extremely cost-burdened.”

Getting housed in Skagit is getting harder. Olivia Hickerson, interim executive director of Friendship House, said they continuously see the same people return to their temporary housing since there are no other places for them to go.

“There is no permanent housing,” Hickerson said. “So it’s a cycle of homelessness that’s just recurring.” Housing options have gotten more limited in recent years, and more people need Friendship House’s services.

“To rent a room is like $800, $900. And you’re getting a bed and sharing a bathroom with the rest of the house. And so that’s just not feasible for people that are on public assistance, getting $300, $400 a month, even $1000,” Hickerson said. 

Making changes in the mix

Mount Vernon mayor Jill Boudreau said that in 2016, the city began making code and zoning changes to allow for permanent supportive housing that provides residents with medical and other supportive services for an indefinite period.

One of these, Martha’s Place on College Way in Mount Vernon, is under construction now. The building will contain 70 units of permanently supportive housing for people experiencing chronic homelessness.

Sign of the times: a project on College Way is under construction to help meet affordable housing needs in Skagit County. (Amy Nelson photo © 2022)

The city has also adopted density bonuses which allow developers to build more units than allowed if units are permanently rented to households who are at 80% of the area median income or below.

Mount Vernon also allows for accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, and zero-lot-line townhomes, which permit multifamily dwellings in a single-family residential zone. Townhomes are connected horizontally, so units may share one or two walls. 

“We do have the potential of about 300 units in the permitting process today,” Boudreau said.

These units are a mix of different sizes, including about 50 subsidized units from the Housing Authority of Skagit County.

Downtown, Boudreau sees the city’s Commons Project leading more development. “We know that we’re going to see a lot of units being developed in our downtown area. And there is where we have unlimited density. So we’re thinking we’re going to see another 300 units in our downtown area over the next few years.”

The city is beginning to see the progress from this, Boudreau said. Development takes time, she said, but the city has determined a need for “all levels of housing stock in order to balance out available units for various levels of income.”

More multifamily units

The City of Burlington plans for an additional 1,448 additional housing units to be developed in the city, by 2036, said Brad Johnson, city community development director. Sixty percent of the units will be multi-unit, such as townhomes or apartments.

In its housing plan, the city uses a 2018 analysis which looked at household size, incomes and occupancy over time to project an increase in attached housing and decrease in household size.

“And then taking a look at the economy here in Burlington, where a large portion of the workforce is employed in lower paying service and retail jobs—the combination of small household size, declining share of detached housing and lower household incomes all pointed in the direction of an increasing share of multifamily housing needs,” Johnson said.

Looking more at the city’s demographics, Johnson said, about 50% of residents are renting, and the majority of people who are employed work in the retail and service sectors.

In Anacortes, the city’s 20-year housing plan includes a variety of home types, such as ADUs, cottages and townhomes, as well as allowing for higher density in residential zones. Anacortes also has bonus provisions for developers who provide affordable housing. 

“The city has done an excellent job in providing for additional growth through our newly adopted regulations,” director of planning community and economic development Don Measmer said. 

Maasmer pointed to 50 new townhomes built in 2021, and said more housing will give people a place to live and work in the city.

Keeping the county affordable—for everyone

Many of Inman’s recent clients come from higher-priced markets such as King County, some of whom have been priced out of buying there, but also others who have a desire to live out of the city.

“I think people will want to have that rural feel and want to be able to be within the valley, but not necessarily have to be down in the cities,” Inman said.

As the county grows, Inman said she hopes that the county will be able to keep its rural character while continuing to grow, because growth to her is inevitable. 

“I do see further growth,” Inman said. “I think there’s just no way around it.” 

Inman hopes that affordable housing continues to be developed throughout the county, so that current residents don’t get priced out.

“For a lot of the families that have grown up here and wish to stay near their families, I hope that we can do that. I know there’s a lot of push for it,” Inman said.

In Mount Vernon, Mayor Boudreau said they want to support organizations who will do the important housing work, like Habitat for Humanity, Homecrest of Skagit and the Friendship House.

“Ultimately, for us, we feel that in the city, we need to help bolster nonprofit development in order to keep permanently affordable units in play, so that in five or 10 years, they don’t just switch over and raise the rents,” Boudreau said.

The Skagit County planning commission just completed a proposal to the council for allowing existing structures to be used as accessory dwelling units. In 2000, the county started allowing ADUs to be built anywhere residential use is allowed. Right now, Gill said, the livable space maximum limit for an ADU is 900 square feet, but this proposal would change that to 1,200 square feet.

The county council meets March 28 to discuss the proposal and the entire planning docket, Gill said.

— Reported by Lauren Gallup

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