Housing in King County is in high demand and low to moderate income residents are feeling the crunch.
East King County, stretching from Kenmore to Issaquah to Bellevue, has seen a dramatic increase in living costs during the past decade, according to 2015 data from A Regional Coalition for Housing (ARCH). This increase is due largely to an increase in those looking for housing, as the area emerges from the Great Recession, a housing deficit and stagnant wages for many working people.
During the past three decades, East King County has gone from having a surplus of housing to employing a workforce that requires 25 percent more housing than is available. The situation is only expected to get worse over the next 20 years with the addition of a projected 133,000 jobs, requiring some 95,000 additional housing units, according to ARCH. Currently, there are only 60,500 housing units planned, according to the data.
ARCH is an organization which was created in 1992 through an inter-local agreement between East King County cities to address affordable housing concerns. The organization works with the cities to preserve and expand affordable housing, but with real estate costs nearly doubling since its inception, and funding commitments from cities holding steady and falling well below inflation, it is struggling to meet the area’s housing needs, particularly for low income residents.
“It takes so much to get from the market all the way down to low income,” ARCH director Arthur Sullivan said. “To get to low income, it’s always needed direct assistance.”
The organization uses three main routes to encourage the creation of affordable housing.
The first is trying to create diversity through the private sector where cities zone to allow more flexibility in the creation of multi-family housing, including apartments, duplexes and backyard cottages.
Second is by offering incentives to private contractors through actions like requiring new developments to retain a portion of new units for affordable housing, waiving permit fees and other direct incentives.
Third is direct assistance through funds donated by member cities into an ARCH trust fund, coupled with county, state and federal dollars to directly construct new housing, purchase land and acquire existing housing.
The first two options generally benefit residents who make 50 to 80 percent of the area’s median annual income of around $70,600, according to ARCH.
Seattle’s annual median income is $62,000, and $70,567 county-wide.
Fifty-four percent of households in East King County earn more than $84,700, while nearly one-third of Eastside residents fail to earn 80 percent of the area’s median income.
However, income levels overall have declined in recent years, with half of the Eastside’s workers falling below the 40th percentile of area earners, reflecting a national trend of income inequality.
Of those making $35,300 or less, 75 percent are cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than one-third of their income on housing. Of these, there are 25,000 households in East King County which are extremely cost-burdened, meaning they pay more than 50 percent of their income for housing, and are often younger residents or seniors on fixed income.
According to ARCH data, average monthly rent in Eastside cities was $1,362 in 2013, the most recent year available, as compared with $1,173 county-wide.
In a nutshell, this means ever-increasing numbers of Eastside residents are having a harder time paying for housing.
For low and very low income residents, ARCH and local cities use direct funds to try and help, but even still, only seven percent of housing is affordable to households making less than $21,200 annually, compared with 15 percent county-wide, according to ARCH.
Since 1993, more than $42 million in East King County city funds have been made available through various funding sources, and ARCH has funded more than 3,000 housing units, although the number of housing units cities actually created was much lower, and heavily skewed toward households earning between 50 to 80 percent of the median income.
According to ARCH data, between 1993 and 2002, Eastside cities created only 36 percent of 445 planned affordable housing units for households making less than $35,300 annually, this fell to a paltry 18 percent of 445 between 2003 and 2012.
In contrast, these cities created 361 housing units, or nearly 115 percent of their goal of 315 units, for households earning between $35,300 to $56,499 annually from 1993 to 2002.
This also dropped during 2003 to 2012, with only 225 of some 315 anticipated units being constructed.
Other institutions are also trying to address ever-increasing rents and stagnant wages.
The Low Income Housing Institute Director Sharon Lee thinks cities could be doing more.
“I think there’s a lot of talk about how unaffordable the Eastside is,” she said. “I think ARCH should do a bigger (funding) ask, and the elected mayors and city councilmembers should be making affordable housing a high priority.”
She said that with area growth, cities could implement a fee on new developments to be put directly towards creating or acquiring low-income housing.
Her organization also works at acquiring property to develop low income housing in the greater Seattle area. There are two on the Eastside, in Kenmore and Bellevue.
Section 8 vouchers are also used to help low income earners find housing. These vouchers use federal dollars, and are managed by the King County Housing Authority.
“We’re acutely aware of the skyrocketing rents both in North King County and East King County areas,” Deputy Executive Director Dan Watson said.
While rents have been rising, Section 8 funding from Washington D.C. has not increased in recent years.
“It’s been a very challenging situation in the last several years because of the increases in private market rents, and the costs to the program to try and keep up with those rents,” he said.
Section eight vouchers are awarded through application to a lottery process. Lottery winners are placed on a waiting list to receive one of the 11,400 vouchers available county-wide outside the city of Seattle, and only become available when a voucher holder relinquishes them to the county, or the county deems they don’t need further assistance.
A section eight voucher ideally allows a renter to pay only 30 percent of their income towards rent, with the county picking up the rest.
But with no federal funding increases and higher rents, many voucher holders end up paying more than 30 percent of their income towards rent.
Watson said his department has to choose between this or reducing service.
“One of the consequences of not increasing the assistance in proportion to the increase in rents that we’re seeing is that people have to pay out of their own pockets,” he said.
The section eight voucher lottery was opened in January 2015, but the county doesn’t know when it will open again since many people are still on the waiting list.
Stagnant wages are one of the major factors keeping affordable housing out of reach for many people, and while Seattle passed a $15 minimum wage and has discussed rent control, Watson said he’s not sure if these approaches will be effective on the Eastside.
“I think that the more realistic approach is both trying to create economic opportunities, and making sure that there is a path and a trajectory for people to grow their incomes,” he said.
According to a study by the Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County, updated in 2015, a single adult in East King County needs an annual income of $33,135 to be self-sufficient, covering only basic living costs, requiring an hourly wage of nearly $16.
Minimum wage in Washington State is $9.47 an hour, clocking in around only $25,000 annually.
Sixty percent of workers, or more than 183,000 people employed in East King County, work in service industries, where they generally earn between $30,000 to $55,000 annually, with three Eastside areas paying considerably more, according to ARCH data.
The next largest sector is retail, employing 27,692 and a median annual income of $32,500, just below a self-sufficient income level.
Many of these employees work in the cities where they live.
“It makes sense for the cities to invest in affordable housing for their own residents,” Lee said.
Further solutions could come by way of Eastside cities setting aside portions of new developments for affordable housing, as Bellevue and Redmond do, levying a development tax on new construction like Seattle or licensing a tax on AirB&B units like the city of Portland.
As for Sullivan, he thinks affordable housing isn’t just a problem for very low to moderate income earners, but one that affects the entire region.
“The more stress on the people and their jobs, and your economy eventually suffers,” he said.