Lack of affordable housing causes challenges for Valley

After a months-long search and being outbid a handful of times, Evan Dunn and his family finally settled into their new North Bend home this month.

Having spent a few years in California, Dunn was looking to return to the Seattle area, seeking a place in the Valley that put him closer to relatives and provided space for his children — a four-year-old and four-month-old — to run around.

The family began their housing search early on in 2022, when it was rare for houses to spend more than a week on the market, making it a stressful few months, placing bids on what was available.

“We were stuck with whatever was open each week and bidding on what we thought would be a good fit,” he said. “I feel really lucky that we found a place.”

The housing market in the Valley has cooled slightly since the beginning of the year, with more inventory and houses sitting on the market a bit longer.

However, as cities across King County proclaimed May 8-14 as “Affordable Housing Week,” housing costs in the Upper Snoqualmie Valley remain near record highs — continuing to perpetuate long-standing challenges for business, schools and elderly residents.

According to the most recent data from the Northwest Multiple Listing Service (NWLS), the area east of Lake Sammamish — including the Upper Valley, Sammamish and Issaquah — saw a 73% jump in active listings between April 2021 and April 2022.

Despite that rise in availability, the number of those looking for houses in the area east of Lake Sammamish has seen the amount of pending and closed sales, dropping roughly 21% and 12%, respectively.

“It’s curious,” said Brian Davis, a realtor and owner of Snoqualmie Valley Real Estate.

“Talking to brokers in town, we’re all seeing similar stories, few showings, few offers, if any. We’re all kind of dumbfounded,” he said. “We’re wondering where all the buyers went.”

Davis speculated that the lack of activity could be caused by buyer fatigue, with high price points making it easier for buyers to give up, hold off, or begin searching for housing in other areas until prices fall.

Last month, median sale prices for single-family homes and condos in Snoqualmie and North Bend reached a 5-year high of $1.2 million, according to data from Redfin, a Seattle-based real estate company.

For the majority of the last five years, median prices in both cities remained between the $600,000 to $800,000 range — not breaking that barrier until the summer of 2020. In 2022, median prices have yet to dip below $1 million.

Davis said despite the lack of activity, demand for houses in the Valley remains high. He added that he expects market activity to pick up again in the third and fourth quarter of the year.

“That trend has held true over the last decade,” he said. “We see an upward spike of activity as we close out the year.”

Living where you work

Those who spend more than 30% of their income on housing costs are considered to be living in unaffordable housing, according to a definition set by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

According to a 2019 report, that’s the case for an estimated 25% of homeowners and 43% of renters in the Valley — a number that has likely grown with rising rental costs. That includes 7% of homeowners and 18% of renters spending more than half of their income on housing.

That amount of housing insecurity, not surprisingly, has a much greater impact on lower income households, and creates a significant challenge for a variety of employers whose staff cannot live in the area.

“I received a resignation from a teacher today who’s moving to Eastern Washington because it’s more affordable to live,” said Beth Porter, the executive director of human resources for the Snoqualmie Valley School District. “This is my third year with the district, and we’ve lost several staff members each year for that very reason.”

In November, the Valley Record reported that Valley employers were experiencing a prolific labor shortage, with an estimated 3,000 positions vacant.

Kelly Coughlin, the executive director of the SnoValley Chamber, said vacancies continue to be a challenge. Housing is a part of that challenge, she said, as a number of the area’s low-income workforce, who prior to the pandemic had been living together and sharing rental housing, moved out.

“You’d have six bartenders sharing one house,” she said in an interview last week. “Now, they’ve all left because of how expensive it is to live here.”

Rob Wotton, a recently appointed Snoqualmie City Councilmember, has been working on housing affordability projects since 2015, and has since held five community forums on the topic.

One of the challenges for the Valley, he said, is a federal emphasis on transit-oriented-development, where affordable housing projects are prioritized near dense urban corridors, with easy access to transportation — something the Valley lacks.

“That puts rural communities like ours at a disadvantage,” he said. “We don’t have metro [bus] service on a frequent enough basis and we don’t have the density required.”

Without workforce housing, the Valley is dependent upon workers traveling in from other areas, which is something over two-thirds of its workforce does, Wotton said. Yet, the Valley lacks any reliable public transit to bring in these workers.

The most notable absence is along State Route 18, a frequently congested route without any public transportation options, that serves as the most direct way between the Valley and 4,000 members of its workforce.

“4,000 jobs come in every day and we don’t have the housing for them,” North Bend Mayor Rob McFarland said in his State of the City address this month.

“We don’t have housing for my daughter, the teacher. We don’t have housing for the police officers we’re hiring,” he said. “We’re talking about what used to be a good solid middle class job getting priced out of our community.”

Those challenges have even extended to the City of Snoqualmie. Fire Chief Mark Correira, who has been helping to lead the city’s Human Resources Department, said high housing costs and low inventory have caused applicants for top-level positions to rescind their applications and made it difficult to hire parks, public works and other blue collar positions.

“It was not uncommon 10 or 20 years ago where fire and police and other city workers lived near the city they worked in,” he said. “We now have employees in these groups who live in Snohomish, Pierce and Kittitas counties.”

The housing crisis has also raised challenges for senior residents who live alone. They make up a disproportionate amount of low and extremely low-income residents in the Valley. Income for many seniors remains flat as they live on fixed-incomes with their retirement, Social Security or other income sources unable to keep up with rising housing costs.

“I think people assume seniors own their own homes and they’re long ago paid off, and it’s easy sailing from there,” said Susan Kingsbury-Comeau, executive director of the Mt Si Senior Center. “It’s not.”

Even for seniors who do own a home, upkeep and maintenance can become a burden, Kingsbury-Comeau said, requiring many to downsize as they get older. That’s a challenge in an area with few options.

In the Valley there are only two apartment complexes that are income-restricted and specifically for senior residents, both of which are run by the senior center and provide housing for those at or below 50% of the area’s median income.

“The other alternative is to cash out and move somewhere else,” Kingsbury-Comeau said. “Not a great option if your support network of friends and family are here.”

What can be done

In lieu of these challenges, local cities have teamed up for a Valleywide and Snoqualmie-specific housing needs assessment using a grant from the State Department of Commerce.

That needs assessment is expected to be released this summer, with a housing action plan to follow a year later. Officials are hopeful that the plan can provide information about missing housing needs and possible solutions.

Still, what cities are able to do to provide affordable housing is limited. Cities can add zoning restrictions or implement policies that incentivize affordable development, but are limited by developers’ proposals and the market. Those proposals tend to favor single-family homes which are often more profitable for developers. As of 2019, Snoqualmie had just 218 income restricted units while North Bend had only 20, according to King County data.

In North Bend, after years of almost exclusively building single-family homes, the city has at least 372 units worth of multi-family housing projects in the development pipeline, as it expects to see huge growth over the next decade. Snoqualmie expects to add 160 apartment units over the next decade at the Mill Site Development.

Density and multi-family housing alone won’t guarantee those units are affordable. For example, the average one-bedroom apartment in King County costs a little under $1,900 a month, according to a fall 2021 numbers from the University of Washington Center for Real Estate Data.

“Higher density usually means higher affordability, but it doesn’t always,” said Rebecca Deming, the economic and community development director for North Bend. “What a single-family home cost 10 years ago versus what some of these multi-family apartments are costing now are probably very similar.”

City officials say true affordable housing needs some form of subsidy. That includes income restriction, which makes up just 35 of the 372 units coming to North Bend. Most come from the River Run Apartment complex, where the city agreed with developers to allow 12 units per building, instead of the typical 10, in exchange for 28 units being designated for those making 80% or less of area median income.

“Those trade-offs are how we got those affordable housing requirements,” Deming said. “Unless the government can step in and subsidize development, you’re never going to get affordable housing.”