Housing forum held at Kirkland City Hall

Housing, both in quantity and affordability, is undoubtedly an issue for Kirkland and the entire Puget Sound region as the area’s population continues to rapidly grow. Even for those who can afford a more expensive home, the current market is very competitive, with most listings going fast and receiving multiple offers.

This was the impetus for the Sustainability Foundation to host a housing dialogue in conjunction with the City of Kirkland, the Greater Kirkland Chamber of Commerce, Keller Williams Eastside, Hallmark Realty and the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties. The event was held last week at Kirkland City Hall and included two panel discussions.

Kirkland Mayor Amy Walen opened the event, sharing that of the 130 employees at the Kirkland car dealerships she owns with her husband, only 10 live in Kirkland.

“Our economy can’t work (without better housing),” she said. “We need help from everyone in this room.”

The first panel topic, “Housing Crisis from Multiple Views,” featured commentary from Kirkland City Manager Kurt Triplett, Puget Sound Regional Council Executive Director Josh Brown, EvergreenHealth Vice President of Human Resources Bob Sampson, Michael J. Connolly of Windermere Real Estate Central and David Hoffman, King County manager at Master Builders of King and Snohomish Counties.

“Housing is a unique topic,” Hoffman said. “It’s very personal for all of us.”

With the population of the region expected to grow from 4 million to 5 million in 2040, Brown said it was critical to put the “right infrastructure in the right places so growth can be done well.”

He added that one third of the job growth in the region, which includes King, Snohomish, Pierce and Kitsap counties, has been in just three percent of the area’s land, citing South Lake Union, Paine Field and downtown Seattle as the area’s biggest job centers.

“The jobs are very concentrated,” he said, adding this has led to commute times doubling for many in the region.

Sampson shared data about EvergreenHealth’s workforce, which included that 52 percent of the employees drive 11 or more miles each way to get to work. He also said more than seven percent of the people who left EvergreenHealth in 2016 said their new jobs would give them a better commute.

Connolly also shared complementary data about the housing market in the conversation, including that the current housing supply is at 0.7 months on the Eastside, compared to an 8.7-month inventory in 2009. The median sales price for a house at this time is $736,500, compared to $422,500 in 2009.

“We’re adding jobs so quickly that we can’t keep up on the housing side,” Hoffman said, adding that a large portion of the labor force disappeared during the recession and hasn’t come back.

Among the housing stock that is available, many who work in the region are struggling to find an affordable option.

“Affordable housing is becoming a huge issue,” Triplett said. “We can’t get the working-class jobs filled because (potential employees) can’t afford to live here. … People are starting to make choices so they don’t have to spend two hours in traffic.”

Triplett added that the city has seen this first-hand in the struggle to fully staff the fire and police departments.

“The (Kirkland City) Council and the city want to be a part of a solution that creates more affordable housing,” he said. “We’ve got to think through different ways to solve these problems. If we don’t do something, we’re going to lose our quality of life.”

Finding solutions

The second topic, “Steps Toward the Solution,” featured insight from Kirkland City Councilmember Jon Pascal, Arthur Sullivan of A Regional Coalition for Housing (ARCH), Eric Campbell of MainStreet Property Group, Mike Price of the Construction Industry Training Council, Pam Hughes of Cobuy and Jack Bentler of Charity House.

“When it comes to housing, some amazing things get done when you do your jobs well,” Bentler said to his fellow panelists.

Sullivan said there is “really such a wide range of needs” in housing, from homeless individuals and families to first-time buyers who are struggling to find a property they can afford.

He said one innovative solution he thinks more communities should consider is how to incorporate underutilized public and faith properties for housing. He cited the Kirkland Friends of Youth location on a former church property as one example of this.

“More ways to utilize public properties is crucial for the future,” Sullivan said.

Hughes is the co-founder of Cobuy, a digital platform that allows those who couldn’t afford to buy on their own to partner with others in the same situation. They are partnering with builders and lenders to provide housing for friends, unmarried couples and multi-generational households that are looking for a home to buy.

Bentler said his company, Charity House, offers buyers substantial discounts on mortgages, and the company also donates $1,000 to a charity of the buyer’s choice.

“It’s something we feel can compel people to get involved in the buying and selling process,” he said.

He said his company is also starting to get into the tiny house market, specifically with shipping-container homes. He said studio homes start at $42,801, which usually means a $400 per month mortgage.

“We want people to have the ability to obtain property as inexpensively as possible,” Bentler said.

For those who aren’t looking to buy, Campbell said there will be an end in sight to the dramatically increasing rental prices in the region.

“We will have enough supply where we will start to see a shift (in rent),” he said.

When it comes to increasing the housing stock, both Hoffman and Price talked about the need for high schools to broaden their focus from encouraging students to pursue four-year degrees and/or careers in STEM to also encourage students who show interest to pursue careers that don’t require a four-year degree, such as construction jobs.

Pascal, who works as a transportation consultant, said it is critical to connect land use with adequate transportation. He said there are 4,700 housing units, both multi-family and single-family, in the pipeline in Kirkland. To promote mass transit use over car trips for those who will move to the area, he recommended expanding the park and ride lots, many of which are currently at 100-percent occupancy.