Think About It: Land use is the people’s work

We learned during the government shutdown that 40 percent of Americans have an average of $400 in the bank and live paycheck to paycheck. From that data, it’s no wonder we heard many stories of families on the brink due to the shutdown – not having money for rent, needed medication, transportation and groceries. Food kitchens sprung up like spirits after a snow thaw and individuals came forward offering help for other necessities.

The communities of Sequim and Port Angeles showed similar caring for the homeless during the cold spell. St. Luke’s opened a warming center in Sequim and Serenity House Shelter extended its hours to 24/7. Some motels offered rooms and many individuals provided food and warm clothes to those in need.

Now, in the warmth of community concern and considering the continuing vulnerability to homelessness, we need to seriously and productively think about the housing dilemma in our communities.

One of the root causes identified across the country and here in Sequim is the lack of affordable housing; some say it is the predominant factor. We must not allow ourselves to stop thinking because we believe homelessness is all due to addictions to drugs or alcohol. Addictions and mental illnesses are a factor for some but addiction centers will not create housing for people living on the economic edge.

The circumstance of a young man I know woke me up to the consequences of a short supply of affordable housing. This young man’s long-term relationship with his partner broke down and he was the one to leave. He didn’t have the money for first and last months’ rents and no family to lean on for a loan. He didn’t want to wear out his friendships by couch surfing.

“I never thought I’d be homeless.”

His tone expressed the stone in his stomach and the pain in his heart while he tried to imagine something that he thought impossible.

‘There goes the neighborhood’

Quite a bit of public discussion has been generated over plans to increase density, one solution being proposed to increase the supply of affordable housing in urban and rural settings. My hometown of Seattle is in the midst of controversy as different plans are floated. Seattle does not have the luxury of undeveloped swaths of land. Developers can’t build out but can build up. That is, if zoning allows them to replace certain existing structures.

I have a friend in another city that has passed zoning laws to incentivize density. Her experience demonstrates what may be, or not, an unintended consequence. She lives in a college neighborhood lined with 100-year-old trees and filled with stately old houses.

One morning she woke to the sounds of a wrecking ball and bulldozer razing a recently sold home. The house was replaced with two smaller multi-story units with a price tag more than two and a half times the cost of the original, an unaffordable $1.5 million each.

As some like to say, “There goes the neighborhood.”

In the drive to solve a problem, the officials in this instance are willing to sacrifice the character of a neighborhood. Doesn’t that make you think of other modern-day examples such as globalization and artificial intelligence that have rendered some work obsolete? The disorienting uprooting of people is the despair of our age.

Too much of a good thing can invite opportunists who see density zoning as perfect for making room for high-end housing development.

Caution and empathy are required.

Locate people near jobs

Even those of us who live in greater Sequim surrounded by unoccupied land cannot escape the forces of development. When we arrived in Sequim, we learned about a comprehensive land use policy developed for Clallam County in accordance with the Washington State Growth Management Act (GMA) that laid out land use to preserve the rural and agricultural nature of our area. Density was centralized in cities with expanding rings of land in which each mandated decreasing density the farther away from the cities.

I have more work to do to learn the status of that plan or more recent land use plans. I was able to dig into Sequim City which is doing considerable planning around housing under the direction of Barry Berezowsky, Sequim Community Development Director. The work resulted in “Sequim Affordable Housing Action Plan 2018” which will go through the planning process before adoption.

The plan is available on the city’s website if you are interested. Meanwhile, I will give you facts of affordable housing in Sequim from the report:

“Finding ways to reduce the housing affordability gap is a City Council priority. Therefore, the Council commissioned a housing study as the first step towards addressing the local housing affordability issue.”

“Housing is not affordable if the housing market does or cannot provide housing within a price range that a household can rent or purchase with 35 percent of their gross household income and especially if a household has to occupy housing that consumes more than 35 percent of their gross household income.”

According to the action plan, 53 percent of Sequim renters were paying over 35 percent of their income. An additional 4 percent were considered “overburdened renters” by paying 30 percent of their gross income which was measured as extremely low income.

Most likely, many of the people in this statistic are providing service in retail stores, rehabilitation centers, assisted living facilities and fast food eateries among other services. They may be students in part-time jobs, people on fixed incomes such as Social Security, single parents and couples starting life together.

They are essential; their work is important. It’s in a community’s best interest to establish economically feasible housing close to jobs and schools.

Community leaders in our county and cities are looking for market solutions that incentivize affordable housing and job opportunities that offer livable wages and a future.

Land use is the people’s work in communities like ours. Coming up with a balanced plan that achieves these ends and expresses the values of the community is hard work.

Our involvement and support are an essential part of the process.

Bertha Cooper spent her career years as a health care organization and program administrator and consultant and is a featured columnist in Sequim Gazette. Cooper has lived in Sequim with her husband for nearly 20 years. Reach her at columnists@sequimgazette.com.

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