Housing shortage top priority for Clallam County

Navigating out of the current housing crisis is one of the biggest challenges facing the Clallam County Department of Community Development, according to director Bruce Emery, who said the lack of housing was one of the leading issues for the county.

Speaking to an online meeting of the Clallam County Economic Development Council on Feb. 15, Emery — who formally took office in January —outlined the challenges the county is facing in getting additional housing units built locally.

“We don’t know precisely what the (housing) shortfall is for Clallam County,” but based on U.S. Census, the county is short about 1,200 units, Emery said.

The number of building permits issued for unincorporated areas of the county show there were 185 housing units built in 2022, down from 222 in 2019, constituting a 17 percent decrease from before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Barriers to creating new housing include supply chain issues and changes to the state energy code, both of which are driving up the costs of construction, and the lack of a sufficient labor workforce, Emery said.

Following the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent downturn in the housing market, Emery said the county lost an estimated 75 percent of its housing labor workforce.

“We’ve gone from five major engineering firms 20 years ago down to one,” Emery said. “There’s also been an increase in the amount of requirements where engineering is required.”

The lack of engineers can add months or even years to development project timelines, Emery said.

One of the other challenges in getting additional housing in unincorporated Clallam County is the lack of public infrastructure, particularly water and sewer services.

In 2022, Clallam County established a Housing Solutions Committee dedicated to drafting recommendations to address the lack of housing, and finding ways to fund or subsidize public infrastructure projects is part of that work, Emery said.

Local jurisdictions are taking an aggressive approach to housing and cities like Port Angeles have been updating their zoning codes to try and diversify the types of housing available. The county is likely to follow suit when it updates its comprehensive plan, Emery said, which will require coordination between the county and cities.

The state Legislature, too, is considering a number of bills seeking to expand the kinds of housing allowed in urban growth areas and provide funding for building housing for low- and middle-income people.

But there are also provisions being considered in Olympia that might make things more difficult for rural communities like those in Clallam County. One bill would require the use of prevailing wages for public works contracts, which Emery said disadvantages local developers.

Another bill under consideration would add another element to comprehensive plan requirements to include climate change resiliency, which would impact other provisions within the plan as well.

Emery said environmental considerations are already part of many communities’ planning processes but that statewide standards can be difficult for local jurisdictions to achieve.

“Forcing this statewide does not make sense,” Emery said.

In addition to creating the conditions to encourage the construction of housing, the county also needs to think about its industrial land base so there are also good-paying jobs allowing people to purchase homes.

“The best we can do (to keep young people in the area) comes down to zoning,” Emery said. “Do we have industrial land for adequate-wage jobs?”

Emery was among four people who ran to replace former director Mary Ellen Winborn, who moved to Mississippi in May and worked remotely. The county took legal action and settled with her in October. County commissioners named Emery acting director in November.