Snohomish County Light Rail Planning Turns Toward Housing

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Snohomish County is gathering feedback on housing strategies to be deployed near its future light rail stations at Ash Way and Mariner Way. (Graphic by Snohomish County)

Approaching the halfway mark of their Fall 2020 Light Rail Communities workshop, Snohomish County has opened up part two of the workshop to address and solicit community feedback on their current and future housing affordability situation. This workshop is a part of the County’s Light Rail Communities program, whose scope covers urban unincorporated Snohomish County in between Lynnwood and Everett–referred to as the subarea within the program. When The Urbanist last reported on the program, the County had selected its preferred station locations for Ash Way and Mariner Stations.

Promising Housing preferences for the Subarea

On November 6th, part one of the workshop first shared and solicited reaction to community feedback from the county’s Community Preferences Survey and Residential Housing Type Virtual Workshop. On housing, the last workshop and survey results uncovered mixed but overall promising housing density acceptance by survey participants. Overall, three- to six-story buildings were rated highest for importance to accommodate with townhouses as a close second, and duplexes and three-story walk-ups as strong third and fourth place. Single-family homes were the most divisive with the highest share of greatest importance votes and second highest share of lowest importance votes. Towers of 20+ and 10+ stories were rated as the least important to accommodate, but overall 10+ story buildings were not that far behind single-family homes. Space is made available to comment on these results.

Rated on a scale of one to seven, with 1 lowest importance to accommodate and 7 highest importance to accommodate -(Courtesy of Snohomish County Planning & Development Services)

The County also has since taken the liberty to construct three themes for housing density for the subarea. All three themes share similar overall density, but as their numerical designations ascend their density becomes more distributed across urban unincorporated Snohomish. While the themes will not reflect actual or proposed changes to future zoning, they’re an attempt to reflect the survey results. Perhaps theme three reflects public input the best with its plentiful midrise and townhouse usage, and limited 10-20 story buildings restricted to urban cores. Part one of the workshop ends with space for public comment on the themes.

Theme Three – Notice the abundance of 3-6 story buildings (solid blue squares) and townhouses (plus signs). See the workshop for the other themes and more detail. – (Courtesy of Snohomish County Planning & Development Services)

Housing Affordability

The latest addition to the workshop narrows focus to the county’s and concerned subarea’s housing affordability situation. The County presents worsening figures for housing affordability, as new housing grew 7% slower than new households, there was a 50% to 67% decline in low rent housing in the county between 2011 and 2017, and 30% of homeowners and 50% of renters were cost burdened–spending more than 30% of their income on housing and utilities. The issue was also framed in a racial equity light when they showed lower rates of homeownership among Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities, and therefore greater risk of a housing cost burden. Of particular interest was the higher rating of cost burden within the examined unincorporated subarea.

Link light rail’s alignment through Snohomish county. (Snohomish County)

Citing the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC), the County acknowledged that by 2050 it would need 200,000 new housing units to accommodate future growth, and that just below half would need to be incentivized or subsidized for low income households. Accordingly, it is planning to place much of that growth around its high capacity transit like its future light rail stations. With the council’s tools, moderate and high displacement risks are also brought up for readers to consider before presenting them with space to comment on housing costs and affordability.

Graphic showing towers near station tapers off to missing middle low-rise farther from the station.
Snohomish County’s survey from summer 2019 asked for reactions to the housing types in this graphic ranging from 20+ story towers near the station to low-rise farther out. (Snohomish County)

Next, missing middle housing, incentives and inclusionary housing, and local housing projects are brought up as types of housing approaches to consider to better housing affordability in the county. Recently, the 2017 Census Bureau data recorded 65% of the county’s 300,000 housing units were detached single-family homes, 23% was multifamily, and under 7% was single-family attached–townhouses, duplexes, etc.

According to a PSRC analysis on 6% of units in Kitsap, Pierce, and Snohomish counties count as missing middle -(Courtesy of Opticos Design)

The PRSC identified single-family attached, and multifamily with 2-19 units as missing middle housing. These kinds of units fall in-between single-family attached and mid-rise housing and according to PRSC tend to be more affordable than single-family and denser housing. Middle housing isn’t precluded from Snohomish County’s development regulation and zoning, but one reason why that kind of housing is lacking is due to building industry cost models not favoring middle housing. The county’s Urban Core Subarea Plan will be reviewing existing development regulation to search for opportunities to encourage missing middle housing. Among the opportunities include additional incentives that some jurisdictions have tried to encourage more missing middle housing development.

Other incentive structures for housing affordability include incentive and inclusionary zoning. When available in a land use zone, incentive zoning can give developers more capacity when they provide affordable housing, this method is already used by the county. Density bonuses, flexible development regulations, parking reduction, fee waivers or reducing, and permitting priority are among the positive incentives–rewards– that can be individually or packaged for developers to create public benefit within the housing supply. Inclusionary zoning balances incentives (typically density bonuses) with affordability requirements set at a certain percentages of units rent-restricted to qualifying lower-income households–or require paying an opt-out fee aimed at creating at least as many units off-site, as Seattle’s program does. Depending on the tool, the regulation may fine violators or give developers an option to pay a fee to avoid it. Inclusionary zoning is currently not deployed in Snohomish County, but it could be considered as the planning process continues.

HopeWorks Station II operated by HopeWorks and Housing Hope – (Courtesy of Beacon Dev Group)

Lastly, there’s the option to build more affordable housing projects in a county that was home to 20,673 affordable housing units as of 2017. These units are operated by a mix of nonprofits and local authorities. As the PRSC noted, the existing affordable housing inventory must grow almost six fold in the next 30 years to meet future demand. The County presents three avenues for increasing their inventory, and seeks feedback on the issue in the open house.

Closing on Displacement and Accessibility

The workshop begins to end on a note on the potential impacts of the light rail stations. While positive impacts like reduced reliance on automobiles are noted, the workshop anchors the importance of current planning efforts with light rail accelerated rising housing costs and resulting displacement. Those two negatives impacts are escalated for mitigation and resolution. Preserving existing affordable housing and supporting the development of diverse dwelling sizes and types to meet the needs of the current and future population will be a part of the Urban Core Subarea Plan’s guiding principles. Strategies within the plan and potential land use and zoning changes will be instruments to execute those actions, and the feedback from the community will be a factor in developing those instruments.

(Courtesy of Snohomish County Planning & Development Services)

Barring recession delays, Ash Way, and Mariner Stations are expected to open sometime in 2036, so the County has over a decade and half to promote housing development to meet housing affordability needs for their constituents, current and future. Especially, if you’re a resident of Snohomish County be sure to participate in the workshop and spread the word. Additional feedback can be sent to the project email at LightRailComm@snoco.org. The email can also be reached for interpreter and translation services for non-English speakers, accommodations for persons with disabilities, and a printable version of workshop materials. The workshop closes on December 20th, 2020.

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Shaun Kuo is a junior editor at The Urbanist and a recent graduate from the UW's Jackson School. He is a Seattle native that has lived in Wallingford, Northgate, and Lake Forest Park. He enjoys exploring the city by bus and foot.

3 COMMENTS

  1. I agree with Shaun that making predictions during a pandemic is tricky, but at the same time the PSRC 2050 Vision Statement is predicting the future 30 years out based on pre-pandemic 2018 data and assumptions. The population growth targets in the 2050 Vision Statement are dramatically higher than the last 10 years of actual growth in the four county region.

    The rush to upzone areas during a pandemic, and releasing a 2050 Vision Statement during a pandemic when all of the assumptions and data are no longer applicable, is much more about development desires than housing affordability or transit or global warming (the 2050 Vision Statement does not even discuss working from home or electric cars although it is estimating 2050, and electric cars are here today). The PSRC 2050 Vision Statement was heavily influenced by ST and the Master Builders’ Assoc.

    If accurately predicting the future 30 years out was the actual goal of the PSRC 2050 Vision Statement its release would have been withheld until after the pandemic, because as Shaun notes we are shooting in the dark right now. We do know changes at Boeing, electric cars, and working from home will create changes in housing and commutes, and we are seeing those changes in housing desires right now, and yet the 2050 Vision Statement is insisting on immediate upzoning when recent changes in housing choices due to the pandemic and working from home is moving away from density and TOD. Even before Covid-19 the PSRC predicted most population growth to go to Kitsap, Snohomish and Pierce Counties because of the desire for a single family house, and housing affordability.

    All I am saying is the 2050 Vision Statement should be put on hold during the pandemic, and we need to wait until a year or two after the pandemic for the dust to clear to find out how much housing, transit, population growth, and commuting have changed before massive upzones or transit projects.

    I will save for another post the problem with upzoning and gentrifying wealthy neighborhoods or areas if affordable housing or equity are the goal.

  2. “Citing the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC), the County acknowledged that by 2050 it would need 200,000 new housing units to accommodate future growth”

    Those estimates were developed before Boeing’s assembly plants were shut down and before remote working eliminated the need for so many Sno. Co. residents to commute daily to station areas to the south.

    With remote working remaining a requirement of many large employers, it’s fair to ask why anyone would want to live in a dense multifamily situation anywhere near a light rail train station in Sno. County.

    • Quoting a relevant response from last week “Seems a little early to project pandemic conditions out that far into the future…Give it a rest.” Plus plenty of folk live in dense multifamily housing without light rail, apartment vacancy rates in the US that includes Sno. County have only gone up to 5% in q3 this year up oh no .4% from last year in a pandemic (Seattle times). I imagine having a light rail for things other than work would be a bonus.

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