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Region's quality of life is tied to affordable housing

When it comes to our region's quality of life, affordable housing plays a vital role.

A coalition recently formed to address how best to balance future economic growth with the assurance of affordable housing in the central Puget Sound region.

Prosperity Partnership is comprised of more than 200 government, business, labor and community organizations from the central Puget Sound region. The group, which is part of the Puget Sound Regional Council economic development planning department, recognizes the region's vast potential for economic growth.

The region has the ability to attract and nurture industries such as aerospace, biological technology, information technology and clean technology, said Eric Schinfeld, Prosperity Partnership associate economic policy analyst.

By the year 2010, 290,000 new jobs are predicted to exist in the area, but Prosperity Partnership would like to see an additional 100,000 new jobs surface, Schinfeld said.

However, with economic growth comes a need to ensure quality of life for those living in expanding cities such as Federal Way in King, Kitsap, Pierce and Snohomish counties. This is why Prosperity Partnership recently created a task force called Regional Housing Strategies Working Group.

The task force will hold four meetings in an effort to reach agreements and solutions between homeowners, cities and businesses and developers in how to offer affordable housing in central Puget Sound. It will then present a handful of possible solutions to the state Legislature this fall, Schinfeld said.

"We believe improving housing affordability will lead to the creation of more jobs," he said.

Quality of life

Among the most important characteristics of quality of life is affordable housing, Schinfeld said.

Affordable housing is generally defined as housing that does not require a household to spend more than 30 percent of its annual total gross income to sustain, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The task force has expanded upon this definition.

Affordable housing is defined as housing, for workers of all wage levels, that meets HUD standards, but is also in close proximity to the worker's place of employment, Schinfeld said.

This housing includes single family dwellings, apartments, condos and rentals — all of which are becoming increasingly harder to find in the region, said Eric Faison, Federal Way City Council and task force member.

"As we're growing, there is less and less land available, which in turn drives housing costs up," Faison said.

Taking action

The Regional Housing Strategies Working Group task force is comprised of people from five sectors that are influenced by housing affordability. These sectors include market rate developers, non-profit developers, municipal planners, businesses and employers and elected officials from across the region.

The task force will not create solutions, but will rather present existing ideas that may work as solutions to offering affordable housing, Schinfeld said. A series of four meetings will allow for an exchange of ideas among the sectors.

"We need specific, tangible action on housing," Schinfeld said.

One example includes streamlining building regulations throughout the region so that developers know what is expected of them when they build within any of the four counties, Schinfeld said. This will cut down on the costs and delays developers face.

Developers are not excited that housing costs are rising because the trend translates into a smaller number of people who are able to afford the homes developers are building, Schinfeld said. The developers realize that middle-income families are not being adequately presented with affordable housing, but this may make offering mid-income housing more cost-effective for developers, he said.

Another example is allowing for multi-family housing tax incentives and exemptions to be more widely applied, Faison said. This would allow for the exemption of state and local taxes if a developer were to build within a designated area.

However, Federal Way already has this exemption in place. The city's original goal in implementing this was to encourage the building of new housing in urban centers, but it is not being fully utilized, Faison said.

Solving a problem

In July the task force will meet once again. Despite the group members' varying backgrounds and interests, they appear to be cooperating well so far, Schinfeld said.

However, there is still a slight possibility that solutions that satisfy each sector's needs will not be found, he said.

"In the end what it comes down to is agreements (between the sectors)," he said.

Some of these solutions may need to be presented to the Legislature, others may not. Gov. Christine Gregoire and Sen. Patty Murray have both shown a high level of interest in the work of the task force, Schinfeld said.

"We're not going to fix housing affordability, but I do feel we'll be able to do something that makes a difference," Schinfeld said.

Contact Jacinda Howard at jhoward@fedwaymirror.com or (253) 925-5565.

To learn more about Prosperity Partnership visit www.prosperitypartnership.org.

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