A small crane move materials to the top of a three story townhome complex where a construction work receives them.
Washington State needs to produce more housing and Lands Commissioner Franz wants to mobilize state-owned lands for the purpose. (Doug Trumm)

“All Lands, All Hands, All Together” effort could make a dent in housing crisis.

Too many people are feeling it right now – that quiet panic, that lack of certainty, that restless stress. 

Washington is deep in the midst of a housing crisis, and far too many of our neighbors are struggling to pay their rent, stretching to keep up with their mortgage, or searching for a reliable roof over their heads. 

I know how they feel – because I’ve been there. 

When I was a child, I experienced two very different housing situations.  

My dad’s house in Portland was a little house on a quiet street lined with horse-chestnut trees. It felt safe there. It felt like home. 

With my mom, it was a different story. We moved from one friend’s house to another, one apartment to the next. As a result, I learned at far too young an age the awful anxiety of never having a safe, reliable place to call home.  

Right now, across our state, thousands of Washingtonians know that anxiety. 

Nearly 30,000 of our neighbors are unhoused and at least 30% – over two million people – are burdened by rising housing costs. I’m confident the real numbers are much higher. 

This isn’t an urban-rural or an east-west issue – this is a state-wide crisis affecting communities from Seattle to Spokane. We have a deficit of 340,000 affordable homes state-wide, and the situation is only going to get worse if we don’t act. According to the Department of Commerce, we need 1.1 million new homes over the next 20 years. 

Our state is growing – and growing desperate. 

We need an “All Lands, All Hands, All Together” effort. 

Luckily, that happens to be our motto at the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and – as your Commissioner of Public Lands – I’m taking action. 

On March 27, I issued an Executive Order directing my department to center affordable housing development as part our agency’s mandate and mission – identifying potential housing sites on our lands and working directly with cities, counties, Tribal Nations, and the affordable housing industry to inform and direct our policies and procedures. 

DNR owns over 3,000 acres of residential “transition” land – acres of empty lots, vacant plots, and open lands in and around cities and towns all over the state. 

It’s time to start utilizing our public lands as a solution to our housing crisis. 

We’re starting by building workforce development housing. Last month, we secured funding for a housing complex in Port Angeles for fire and seasonal employees. We can’t recruit and retain workers if they can’t find affordable housing. Building workforce housing will address our housing needs and develop our workforce. 

We’re prioritizing direct land sales to counties in desperate need of affordable housing, like the 27 acres we transferred to Kitsap County in July for a mixed-use development that includes affordable housing. 

In addition, DNR is working with South Puget Sound Habitat for Humanity to develop 150 affordable homes in Lacey, providing stable housing for 400 people. 

And just last month, we took a big step toward leasing our lands when the state legislature approved my bill to exempt affordable housing developers from the Leasehold Excise Tax on DNR lands.  

Buying land can account for nearly a quarter of affordable housing project costs.  

By leasing our lands instead of selling them, we can lower those costs for developers significantly – lowering costs for renters and homebuyers in the process. In addition, the revenue we generate from these leases will go directly to support local schools and critical services like libraries and hospitals.  

But available land with ready infrastructure – sewers, roads, utility access – is limited, and usually too expensive for developers dedicated to affordable housing. 

That’s why we need feasibility studies and infrastructure projects to identify and develop land suitable for housing. The hard truth of housing is that it all comes down to the dull details – every cost we can cut makes a difference. 

I have a nameplate on my desk that says, “Do Epic Shit.” It’s my motto and my mantra in this job. But sometimes, to do epic shit, you have to do boring shit first.  

If that means wading neck-deep into the wonky details of land-use policy to deliver more affordable housing for all, then somebody grab me my waders.  

I’m ready to lead on this issue, and I’m urging state leaders and agencies to join this fight. 

Because I know how it feels. I know how it feels to be a scared little girl wondering where I’ll sleep that night. I know that fear, that insecurity. And I know how it feels to be safe at home, on a quiet street lined with horse-chestnut trees. 

Every child deserves that kind of safety. Every renter and homeowner deserves peace of mind. Every Washingtonian deserves affordable housing.  

And I’m going to do everything in my power to make it happen.

Article Author

Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz leads Washington state’s wildfire fighting force and manages nearly 6 million acres of public lands. She is committed to ensuring our public lands are healthy and productive, both today and for future generations. She leads efforts to protect our communities and environment from the impacts of a changing climate, increased development, and wildfire.