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Snohomish looks at how to create more affordable housing

SNOHOMISH — The City Council last week discussed affordable housing and the changes needed to the city’s zoning to meet its goals.
One of those plans requires different zoning laws, taking the town from largely single-family dwellings to having more multi-family housing to compensate for increased housing prices.
The overarching subject was zoning and meeting the demands for affordable housing while preserving the character of Snohomish.

Middle-class income housing and zoning
According to 2017 Pew Research Center data, the middle-class income range is between $41,000 and $132,000; the demographic getting pushed out of the housing market from a lack of affordable housing. City administrator Steve Schuller believes Snohomish can fill that gap with multi-family dwellings. The housing types range from an apartment over a corner store, a duplex or a townhouse to medium apartment complexes.
The catch is: the city would have to change the single-family zoning rules and allow multi-family dwellings.
In a map of Snohomish, single-family housing represents 42% of all city land. There are also mixed-use areas that allow commercial and residential, such as along Maple Avenue in the city-created Pilchuck District. Currently, 10.3% of the land is zoned to allow high-density residential.
In materials for the July 6 council workshop on affordable housing, city planning director Glen Pickus wrote that changing the city’s land use and development code is needed to accommodate higher density buildings in Snohomish.
Schuller stated in an interview about overall development that there would be no mid-rise apartment buildings. “Maybe three or four-story units. No more than five,” he said.
The changes needed include reducing the minimum lot size requirement for what’s allowable and increasing the number of units per acre.
Up-zoning areas of individual houses to allow multi-family buildings would help pave the way, Pickus wrote. Another pathway would be to increase density limits within multi-family zones to condense more dwelling units into a parcel.
Currently, the average selling price of a home in Snohomish is about $700,000, where the average selling price of a home in Seattle is around $850,000, making Snohomish attractive to potential commuters.
Schuller said the newcomers would bring in a younger workforce whose tax dollars will build revenue for the city and help pay for parks and services.

Where in Snohomish?
In an email interview, Pickus described the areas of development would be the Avenue D commercial corridor from Sixth Street to the roundabout known as the Midtown District, the northeast portion of town and the outer edges of the city. Growth could also happen along Ludwig Road between Weaver Road and 16th Street.
When asked about development on the riverfront, Pickus stated by email, “I’d say that’s highly unlikely because everything next to the Snohomish River is zoned either ‘Parks, Open Space & Public’ or ‘Commercial.’”
Pickus continues, “While Commercial allows apartments, the size of the area zoned Commercial isn’t very large, and none of the lots within that area are very large either. All of which would make any significant apartment development unlikely.”

During last week’s workshop, Pickus explained the various ways to find money to help encourage affordable housing.
One way is to wait for funds collected through a part of the state sales tax captured for the city for affordable housing to build up and purchase land. Pickus explained, “Currently, the City collects about $35,000 per year with an ‘Affordable Housing Sales and Use Tax,’ whereby the City claims a share of the state sales tax, so there was no tax increase from which Snohomish receives an estimated income of $35,000 annually. Currently, the fund has a balance of $60,171.” Pickus commented that money might take a while to accumulate.
Another method of raising money is with a city sales tax for affordable housing.
Pickus stated, “Approximately $500,000 per year could also be collected for affordable housing efforts if a new 0.1% sales tax is adopted pursuant to RCW 82.14.530, ‘Sales and use tax for housing and related services.’ This tax must be approved by a City Council vote or through a ballot measure.”
The council last week agreed to start a fact-finding mission about a city sales tax for affordable housing before presenting it to the public.
Other options mentioned were renters’ assistance and subsidized housing. The city would prefer to work with the Housing Authority of Snohomish County (HASCO) since city staff do not have expertise in programs of this type.

The longevity of affordability
A point raised by Councilman Steve Dana is making sure the properties stay affordable. Dana expressed concern that a non-governmental organization (NGO) providing the housing may eventually want to transition to a full market value price. Dana said, “The only way we will ensure that we have housing that costs much less than the market rate is by maintaining public ownership of the property that’s being leased by the NGO.”
Councilwoman Donna Ray shared Dana’s concern about maintaining the long-term affordability of the housing and agrees that one of the best ways to secure pricing is by public ownership. She likes the idea of partnerships with organizations, but also supports a sales tax increase and would like more information.



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