The math is pretty simple. When there are more people than housing; availability goes down and prices go up. In Spokane, Wash., the math may be straightforward, but the answers are much more complex. That’s why when the Spokane Association of REALTORS® looked for solutions to the city’s housing crisis, it sought expert help.
The Spokane Association of REALTORS® and collaborative partners, which included the state association and the local Home Builders Association, turned to the Counselors of Real Estate’s CRE® Consulting Corps — a team of experienced and nationally recognized experts in real estate and policy. After an arduous selection process that involved a detailed application, screening and interviews, the Counselors came to Spokane. A Housing Opportunity Grant from the REALTOR® party helped with funding the project. Darin Watkins, government affairs director for the Spokane Association of REALTORS®, estimates that an investment of approximately $35,000 in the consulting project has yielded more than $400,000 in results.
“The breadth of experience available from the Counselors is phenomenal,” Watkins explains. He says the report developed by the Counselors entitled “Action Steps to Increase Spokane’s Housing Supply” included data illustrating Spokane’s current housing situation, detailed recommendations on how to address the crisis and examples of best practices from around the country to serve as a guide. Watkins says the combination of the third-party expertise of the Counselors and the collaborative efforts of local groups are helping convince even the most reluctant politician of the necessity to address housing now.
“The key to advocacy is to convince someone of your viewpoint and then include your friends to help convince others,” Watkins says. “This has helped us build a better coalition. We’re all working on this together. We all have the same voice and it’s hard to say no if you’re a politician. The good news is this isn’t a red or blue issue. Red folks see the business endeavors and blue folks see the social issues. Everything is tied to housing and housing availability.
“Spokane has one of the worst housing availability rates in the country. We have approximately 100,00 families in Spokane and only 92,000 housing units,” Watkins explains.
Spokane has a half-percentage vacancy rate and double-digit price increases. Several years ago, there were 2,000 homes for sale at any given time but as of mid-March 2022, there were only about 150 homes for sale. And the prices of those homes have skyrocketed. Five years ago, 52 percent of Spokane’s available housing sold for less than $200,000. In the first eight months of 2021, only 5 percent of homes were selling at that price point. About one in four owners and nearly half of renters report being cost-burdened by housing. Hardest hit are first-time buyers, young people and buyers needing ‘missing middle’ housing that includes more affordable options like attached housing, accessory dwelling units and zoning that allows for smaller lots and greater density.
State and local restrictions have also added to the housing crisis. Washington state mandates growth management, which basically draws a circle around a city and requires internal growth before expansion outside of the city is approved. There are also height restrictions in parts of Spokane that impact housing development.
“Every restriction we put on housing, limits housing. It’s supply and demand,” Watkins says. But he adds, “now we have a map of where we need to go. We have the data and we can be a solution provider.”
The Counselors’ recommendations are ambitious. They fall into the areas of zoning, housing type and incentives for development. Recommendations include zoning and density changes that support a variety of housing, addressing growth management restrictions, increased engagement of the city’s planning department and stabilizing and streamlining the process for developers. Watkins adds that the report’s inclusion of best practices around the country are particularly helpful because they illustrate real successes and can help Spokane officials more easily see what could work locally.
In Spokane, housing is not just a local issue, but a regional one. And one of the first steps in implementing solutions will be to bring together all the various stakeholders. Watkins says that a regional housing summit will be held in the next few months. The Spokane Association of REALTORS® has also met with the city’s recently hired Planning Director. Working with the Planning Director is essential because the director acts as the public interface, the gatekeeper for developers, coordinator with the city council and manager and influencer throughout the process.
Watkins acknowledges that change can be scary and hard, but the pieces are now in place for meaningful solutions. “REALTORS® have the data and information and can be the driver for change,” Watkins says “I’m really hopeful. This is the most hopeful thing we’ve done to affect true change.”