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We can’t build our way out of affordable housing

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

The midterm election season is upon us and the national media is focused on the Red Wave vs. the Blue Wave and Supreme Court nominations. At the local level, officials are being hounded more by pressing issues like housing costs.

A piece today in The Seattle Times explores this. Their Olympia bureau correspondent wrote about affordable housing as anger and frustration swirls through the halls of the state Legislature. The Red Team and The Blue Team are desperately looking for solutions to rising rents statewide.

So far, the politician’s stock answer is build. Build more affordable housing. Make it easier to build. Build with more density. Just build and do it quickly. Single family homes, condos, apartments, and low rent units. Build like the wind.

Seems logical on one level, but there are some problems with this strategy. I guess if there was an easy fix, everyone would be doing it.

I looked around the country for any other solutions, and there doesn’t seem to be much low-hanging fruit out there. There are no magic bullets to affordable housing.

You can try and ram rent control down people’s throats. But owners don’t particularly enjoy being told how much they can charge for their property, especially when the market is hot.

You can say you want to make it easier to build, but then you can’t also have one of the most restrictive and cumbersome permitting processes in the entire United States. Obviously, those two things are pulling in opposite directions.

I was talking the other day to an architect that has been working for two years just to get the permits on a project. Think about that for a minute. It takes months to draw up the plans and complete your due diligence. Then another two years and tens of thousands of dollars just to get to the starting line. Frankly, it’s ridiculous. The land was purchased in 2015, and they are just starting to build.

Admittedly, it’s a bit of a tricky lot, but the local permit departments have perfected the art of saying no.

For years, there has been a deliberate and calculated campaign designed to extract the maximum amount of fees while delivering the bare minimum of services when it comes to building.

It’s impossible to hold a builder in contempt and encourage him to build faster at the same time.

Unless local legislators can pass a bill that changes the culture at the permit office, we are stuck with what we’ve got for the foreseeable future.

You can hear “What are we talking about here?” everyday at 4:45 p.m. on 97.3 FM.

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