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It Seems Impossible Until it is Done: MBAKS’ Kathleen Sims on Addressing the Puget Sound’s Regional Housing Crisis

By Meghan Hall

The Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties (MBAKS) has been around for more than 100 years and has seen the Puget Sound region rapidly grow and change. As development has taken off and reached an all-time high, MBAKS’ mission of providing diverse and accessible housing is even more important. The Registry spoke with Kathleen Sims, MBAKS’ first female executive director, on MBAKS’ legislative priorities for 2019 and its approach to solving Seattle’s severe housing shortage.

Founded in 1909 and headquartered in Bellevue, Wash., the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties has seen development in both its hometown and the neighboring city of Seattle take off over the course of the last market cycle. How have you seen these markets change?

Over the past 110 years, MBAKS has seen dramatic changes in the Puget Sound region’s housing market. Our beautiful region is now home to some of the world’s top companies; it attracts thousands of talented people to live and work in our thriving cities.

Unfortunately, after a decade of underbuilding, combined with tremendous regional growth, our housing market lacks supply and is incapable of meeting demand, leading to a housing shortage crisis. This tightened supply has driven up market prices, negatively impacting our region. Our association is dedicated to increasing housing supply and making housing attainable for all.

How are the King and Snohomish county markets similar? How are they different?

In both counties, lack of adequate housing supply is making housing unaffordable even to median income families — that is, folks who make $89,000 in King County and $80,500 in Snohomish County.* Today’s median home price in King County is nearly seven times the median household income. Median rental housing costs are now 35 percent of median household income. This is unprecedented. Housing affordably is a challenge that touches many demographics: the older, the younger, single folks and families, newcomers to the area and folks who have lived here for generations. Inadequate supply of affordable housing impacts both urban and rural communities and it is getting worse, not better.

In Snohomish County, housing is more affordable, but further from growing employment centers like Seattle and eastern King County. Homebuyers spend hours a day on clogged freeways getting to work.

In King County, zoning restrictions, mostly imposed at the city level, make a majority of land open only to single family construction. Even as housing has been restricted, regional job opportunities have grown, leading to exploding home prices. Current data show that for every three jobs created in our region, only one housing unit is built.

MBAKS’ mission is to ensure everyone has access to a healthy place to call home. In your opinion, what type of housing product is most needed throughout the Puget Sound region?

The largest problem this region faces is a failure of basic economic principle: housing supply is not even close to meeting demand. We need to allow our local homebuilders to construct apartments, condos, cottage housing, mixed-use development and other housing options close to job centers and transit hubs. We need a variety of housing types at a variety of price points located in areas that already have the infrastructure to support additional households.

We need to overcome the notion that if we would not want to live in a particular housing type that nobody would want to live there. Simply, we need to provide more housing options. Can you imagine a situation where our elected officials decided that if you wanted to buy a car it must be a Lexus LS? Of course not! We want choice. Citizens would revolt. But when we require single family zoning on most of our land, we are essentially requiring all citizens buy one type of housing: the detached single-family residence. This needs to change.

Specifically, one of the types of housing we are asking towns and cities to allow is cottage housing (also known as ADUs, DADUs, “mother-in-law suites,” or “granny flats”), which gives homeowners the option to build another dwelling unit attached to the primary residence and/or another detached dwelling unit in the backyard. Cottage housing has many benefits, including making it easier for younger buyers to qualify to purchase a home, allowing seniors to age in place and expanding options for multigenerational living.

What are the biggest challenges the region will continue to face throughout the year as it continues to grow?

The challenge of providing an adequate housing supply is on pace to eclipse education as our biggest regional issue. Much like education, if we don’t fix our massive deficit in housing supply, we will see continued and accelerating impacts to our region’s economic health and quality of life. Increasingly, local employers are struggling to recruit and retain talent because housing is so expensive and supply is so limited. Housing is an ecosystem; if we can’t provide housing for median income families, those most at risk will continue to be displaced. Homelessness and housing insecurity will continue to increase.

As MBAKS’ executive director, what are your goals for the organization in the coming year? What are your strategies to expand MBAKS’ reach and organizational impact?

We are facing a severe housing shortage that threatens to undermine everything we love about our region — a safe, affordable community that honors environmental stewardship and welcomes everyone. It is time that we stop talking about housing as an issue that can’t be solved. We can responsibly increase the housing supply and protect the environment if we collectively have the courage to make tough choices.

MBAKS stands side by side with business and community leaders working to address this crisis. We bring a unique perspective because we actually represent those who are working to plan, permit, and construct the diverse housing our region requires. Our goals are to see more housing near jobs and transit, leveraging the massive transportation investments we’ve made as a region. We advocate for manageable densities that support growth while upholding the principles of the Growth Management Act. We look to reduce regulatory barriers that artificially slow housing production (and make it expensive), and we work to open the door to more diverse housing options. We are committed to addressing common housing myths and concerns through outreach on social media and informative opinion pieces as well as engaging with local housing activists and other nonprofit organizations to amplify this important message.

How has your career prepared you to step into the role as MBAKS’ first female executive director?

For more than a decade, my bulletin board has reminded me that Nelson Mandela once said, “It always seems impossible until it is done.” Throughout my career, first as senior director of sustainability at Plum Creek Timber Company and then vice president of environmental affairs, sustainability and corporate responsibility at Weyerhaeuser, I have seen firsthand the importance of teamwork. My experience has been a tutorial on building coalitions and high-performing teams to get hard things done. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. No individual or group can successfully do this work alone. Team MBAKS has a strong sense of urgency for addressing this challenge and collaboration and innovation are core organizational values. It’s a good combination.

What are MBAKS’ main legislative priorities for 2019? What is MBAKS hoping to accomplish this year to increase housing supply and eliminate hurdles to home construction?

We have several priorities for the 2019 legislative session. Our government affairs team has worked on key pieces of legislation which will help increase housing supply and reduce costly barriers to building homes.

SB 5334, condominium liability reform, would correct a problematic state law that stifles condominium development by placing significant, costly liability on builders. The legislation corrects this issue and will help encourage affordable condo development that still maintains consumer protections. SB 5334 has passed the Senate and House. We are expecting the bill to be signed by Governor Inslee shortly.

How is MBAKS working with locals, city officials, and others within the real estate industry to achieve these initiatives?

MBAKS and our members work closely with every group mentioned. Our greatest hope for a working relationship with local government is one where both sides bring ideas and goals to each other prior to any decision being made. In many jurisdictions, we have that. We also partner closely with architects, the Building Industry Association of Washington, realtors and urbanists to craft and improve policies that promote housing. For instance, we partnered with the Washington Realtors’ “Unlock the Door” campaign to help pass condominium reform legislation this session.

What did MBAKS learn in 2018 that it will apply to its goals in 2019?

My personal mantra is that I reserve the right to get smarter tomorrow, so we are continually learning. We better understand now how some local elected officials feel caught in the middle. Many elected officials are trying to be responsive to local voters who fear change and at the same time want to increase the supply and diversity of housing in their communities. We know we need to work with them to creatively manage this bind. At the same time, the Growth Management Act was a grand bargain of the state legislature to preserve our most vulnerable forest and farm lands in exchange for directing growth to our more urban areas. Because of GMA, the state legislature has an important and unique role in how to provide adequate supply of housing within urban growth areas.

What are you looking forward to most in 2019?

In Q1 2019, we conducted a series of focus groups to better understand the community’s views on housing. I’m eager to build from this work.

An ongoing priority for us is also building stronger relationships with the business community, understanding better how housing shortages are impacting them and collaborating with the business community and other community leaders to develop a menu of strategies for the 2020 legislative session.

Is there anything else you would like to add that The Registry did not ask?

I would add that as King and Snohomish counties grow and the state’s Growth Management Act holds firm, our only path to more affordable, equitable housing will require us to look to already developed areas to find thoughtful, smart ways to build more housing. This can be a cottage, a townhome, or a small apartment. We can’t rely solely on tiny urban villages within larger cities to take high rise tower after tower. Those small pockets simply do not have enough land to take the 1.8 million people expected to move here by 2050.

*Projection by Washington State’s Office of Financial Management for 2017.