Affordable housing, fire/rescue services focus of city council reports

The Mountlake Terrace City Council at its April 15 work/study session discussed the area’s affordable housing situation and services provided by South Snohomish County Fire and Rescue.

Chris Collier presented the report on affordable housing options. He’s the program manager for the Alliance for Housing Affordability (AHA), which includes as members the City of Mountlake Terrace along with most Snohomish County cities, the county itself and the Housing Authority of Snohomish County.

AHA provides its members with data, analytics, education and outreach in an effort to understand and respond to the shortage of affordable housing in the area. Mayor Kyoko Matsumoto Wright and Councilmember Erin Murray both serve on the organization’s board.

Collier began by sharing a chart demonstrating the difference over time — from 2000 to 2020 — between the number of new households established in Snohomish County and new housing units being built — either for home ownership or rentals. “We’ve always had a surplus, no matter when you start counting…to one degree or another” he said, “until 2014, ’15, ’16, we effectively run out of housing units by 2019.” Collier added that he would consider last year’s total number of housing stock available in the county  — 392 — to be “functionally zero.”

Due to the scarcity of housing stock available in the area, prices have continued to rise through competition for that supply, which is reflected in the county median sale price for single-family detached homes. That price in 2020 was $525,000, which equates to potential home buyers needing almost $122,000 in annual income to obtain financing given typical loan terms. “This does not include student loans, car payments, medical bills, child care and other debt obligations that a family may have,” Collier said.

Meanwhile the median income level for residents in the county “is not enough” to afford that same level of housing, he said. Those numbers diverged shortly after the turn of the century, which “is where the problem really starts when we talk about affordability,” he said. This is at the market’s price levels and “has nothing to do with income restrictions, subsidized housing or anything like that, this is just the market doing its thing,” Collier said.

People looking to rent housing face similar challenges due to the lack of supply available on the market. “Now rent is responding and going up in a dramatic way that we’ve never seen before because again we are out of houses to go around,” he said. “Prices are going up way faster than income and that’s the crux of the problem.”

Collier then looked at the geographic affordability in Southwest Snohomish County, sharing a slide called “Who Can Buy Where,” which compared the median cost of single-family homes vs. townhomes/condos in various cities. In Mountlake Terrace, the average single-family home is $519,000 and townhome/condo $597,000; in Lynnwood, a single-family home is $560,000 and a townhome/condo is $290,000 and in Edmonds, the pricing is $750,000/$439,000. He noted that 2020 was a historical outlier for townhomes/condos prices in Mountlake Terrace due to new properties “that came online,” which then raised median sale prices “considerably.”

Based on those average sale prices, people looking to purchase housing in Mountlake Terrace would need a median household income of $122,000 to obtain a loan for a single-family detached home and $137,000 for a townhome/condo.

He then used economic data from Snohomish, King and Pierce Counties to examine various median job salaries when attempting to procure median housing, which Collier said was appropriate because many people who work in King County may not be able to afford to live there and therefore purchase residences in the neighboring counties. “$100,000 a year doesn’t cut it in South Snohomish County anymore, generally speaking,” he noted.

Next, Collier shared as an example the salary range of four occupations — administrative law judge, physicist, emergency management director and audiologist– pulled from 730 occupations listed in the tri-county region of Snohomish/King/Pierce counties. The data indicates that people in these professions aren’t able to afford a home on a single income.

“There are 1.5 million people working in this three county region whose median income is lower than $85,000 a year,” Collier said. Most of them are already in a house or a rental, “but for people who are trying to enter the housing market now this is what they’re looking at,” he added. “There are a lot of people already struggling and more are coming every day.”

Rentals are also unaffordable for many in South Snohomish County on a single income, he said, pointing to a chart showing monthly rental costs in the various cities. Mountlake Terrace comes in at $1,484 monthly for a one-bedroom apartment and $1,722 for a two-bedroom. Collier then  brought in an “arbitrary selection” of salary ranges for four more occupations — firefighter, plumber, middle school teacher, and marriage and family therapist — to show how difficult it would be for those professionals to afford monthly rent in Mountlake Terrace and nearby cities.

Collier also said that combining incomes — assuming people are purchasing a home together as spouses or partners — doesn’t necessarily solve the affordable housing dilemma. “We can talk about combined incomes, but we have to understand that that is less and less common,” he added. He shared a chart that included median salaries for a range of professions — from police/sheriff ($87,220) to welder ($55,680) to barista ($28,280) — demonstrating that even combining many of these does not give people the annual income required for a home loan in various cities (Mountlake Terrace was $124,140).

Many households with two incomes coming from a mixture of various types of professions can’t afford the financing on median housing options available in Snohomish County. “We just can’t hang our hat on the idea of dual income being the solution,” he said.

Collier then took a dive into the type of structures being built both locally and regionally, and noted that as a rule, the focus has been on building single-family housing — at one end of the spectrum — and larger multi-family developments of 50 units or more. There is a missed opportunity and gap in the region, he said, for building medium-density projects of less than 50 units. “It’s called the missing middle,” he said.

“This tells us that protecting our neighborhoods from change is really only ensuring unaffordability for our children,” Collier said. People who are economically displaced from expensive areas – locally such as Seattle as well as from out-of-state locations, are the ones who will benefit from that lack of change because they are moving Snohomish County due to its relative affordability. As a result, “People that are born and raised in Snohomish County and our cities are being outcompeted economically by people that are wanting to move here for affordability,” he said. “The output of that is our children, our families, our friends can no longer live here and are economically displaced as well.”

Collier said that population also includes seniors who are struggling to downsize and both homeowners and residents who are “both overleveraged and vulnerable.” He noted that there were 31 “forced sale” (eviction) records last year in Mountlake Terrace through October 2020, which was attributed to the coronavirus pandemic.

The alternative to the current situation would be to “create homeownership options for incomes over $70,000 a year that require zero dollars of public subsidy,” Collier said. “This is just a policy change.” Whereas creating market-rate housing options for people with that amount of yearly income would require both policy change and public subsidizations such as incentives and waivers.

Zoning is the key to addressing what is being built, Collier said, adding that the “missing middle” is the “conceptual blind spot we have reflected in” what is currently being constructed in the region. If a city’s zoning “doesn’t explicitly allow it, it is not allowed,” he said.

Mountlake Terrace is on the “leading edge of county growth,” he noted, “thanks to light rail and this is reflected in the numbers.” In addition to housing prices going up rapidly, those same market conditions are present in commercial business property sales, which have “increased an enormous amount” over the last several years, he said.

Collier said that Thursday’s presentation focused on the housing market and didn’t address income-restricted housing or homelessness. “Those are two separate wheels in this discussion, all of them turn relative to one another,” he said, adding that each has its own separate tools and distinct conversations needed to address them.  “This is one-third of the picture at best,” he said.

He also noted that housing is central to many other – if not all – issues facing the region, including education, health care, transportation and economics.

Housing “is a big issue, it is a regional issue,” he said. “It needs collaboration” at multiple levels of leadership and “everyone has a role to play. No city should either feel that they alone must fix it but that they have no role in fixing it or addressing this issue.”

Changes will continue to affect the region and Collier said the question remains what will be done to affect those outcomes: “To let it go as it has in the previous two decades and just see where it takes us, or guide that change in a way that is beneficial to everybody,” he said.

Councilmembers said they appreciated the presentation, which will help to inform their upcoming conversations planned around affordable housing options in the city.

“This is a first step for us to be educated in this way, we all now have access to the information and some of your suggestions,” Mayor Pro Tem Doug McCardle said. “Hopefully as a council we can take this to heart.” McCardle added that he appreciated how Collier addressed the issue of zoning codes: “I like how you say not create but allow it.”

Councilmember Bryan Wahl said he would like to see more examples of tools that have been identified to help with the issue and what other cities in the region are doing, and to schedule further talks “to start identifying things that this council could be doing to address this problem because I know we are all very committed to (it).”

Recognizing that housing is a complex issue that the city can’t necessarily solve on its own, Councilmember Erin Murray said she looked forward to further collaboration to determine actionable steps that can be taken. “I think there’s a lot of people who live in our community now who wouldn’t be able to move (here) at this point,” she said.

Also during Thursday’s meeting, senior staff from South Snohomish County Fire and Rescue presented the agency’s annual report to the council.

Fire Chief Thad Hovis said that the agency has transported 565 confirmed COVID-19 positive patients over the last 15 months of the pandemic. As a result of the outbreak, they have had to constantly evaluate the emergency services provided and react accordingly to rapidly evolving changes. “There was not a template or guidebook to go to about COVID-19,” he said, noting that South County Fire transported the first known case in the nation in early 2020.

The agency’s pandemic-related efforts have involved continued coordination around responses and resources with various other regional, state and federal agencies or stakeholders. South County Fire also “had to pivot on everything we were doing for community outreach,” and “safely connecting with those people that are most vulnerable,” he said. This involved shifting to resource guides, porch visits, telehealth and weekly check-in calls to support those populations –many of whom are seniors not living in nursing homes or long-term care facilities.

Hovis noted that the designation of fire department “no longer covers all of the services” provided by the regional fire authority, which also responds to medical emergencies, rescue situations, motor vehicle collisions, hazardous materials incidents and marine events.

The majority of incident calls in Mountlake Terrace during 2020 were for emergency medical services, which comprised 79% of the total received. That number represented a slight decrease from the previous year, which Hovis attributed partly to the pandemic and its resulting “shutdown period,” which may have left people hesitant to call 911 for transport to an emergency room for fear of being exposed to and/or contracting COVID-19.

“We’re especially proud of our cardiac arrest save rate, which is over 50% — which greatly exceeds the national average,” Hovis said. He noted that all of the agency’s firefighters are certified as emergency medical technicians or paramedics.

Various fire agencies are working together to help provide staffing at Snohomish County’s mass vaccination sites. Deputy Chief Bob Eastman said that officials have heard the frustrations voiced by people about the lack of vaccine supply in general and also that there is not a mass vaccination site in Southwest Snohomish County. “We’ve been trying to find a site…that can do that, and the real estate of the places to go that doesn’t impact traffic and all of the other things that go along with the site has been hugely challenging,” he said.

Eastman noted that there will soon be a mobile site available by the Ash Way Park and Ride in Lynnwood offering both drive-thru and walk-thru components. (The county’s vaccine taskforce announced Monday that the Ash Way site will open April 21.) “There’s been a lot of effort working through this process and it just happens I think we’re going to start getting enough vaccine to be able to utilize the sites we have,” he added. Eastman calculated that the six sites already established in Snohomish County could serve more than 60,000 people a week “if we had vaccine availability.”

Mobile vaccination efforts serving people living in adult family homes, senior housing and those who are homebound have also been a major part of the ongoing vaccination effort that South County Fire is helping to coordinate.

Eastman said that the agency’s county-wide call load for services overall was down significantly last year; up to 20% depending on the geographic location. He noted that there was a decrease in calls for basic life support services and an increase in those for advanced life support. “We think those are because people didn’t call unless they were really, really sick,” he added.

However, total response time rates increased over that same time period, which Eastman attributed to changes made to their rapid response procedures typically used before the COVID-19 pandemic. Deliberately altering that protocol to allow for additional COVID safety procedures “extended the time it took to get us en route to the scene,” which he said added an additional 30-40 seconds to dispatching.

He emphasized that he believes 2020 was an aberration statistically for the call loads and total response times due to the pandemic and noted that the agency “only” operated outside of its traditional rapid dispatch model “for about six months.”

Hovis noted that the decision to return to the previous rapid dispatch procedures were resumed countywide once the agency was able to secure a reliable supply of the personal protective equipment-types needed for its personnel.

— By Nathan Blackwell

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